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Wartime surgery story wins Imperial researcher top TV award

See also...
External Sites:
-The Guinea Pig Club
-BBC Four
-Greenhill Books
-Royal Television Society
(Imperial College is not responsible for the content of these external internet sites)

23 March 2005

The true story of an exclusive drinking club with an unusual membership policy has won Imperial research associate Dr Emily Mayhew a prestigious TV documentary prize.

Her programme, The Guinea Pig Club, is about a club that was open only to those who had cheated death in World War II and suffered a permanent disfigurement.

Surgeon Archibald McIndoe with his patients

Praised by the judges for its original journalism and the strength of its storytelling, the documentary won the best history programme prize at the Royal Television Society awards held on 15 March. It was based on Dr Mayhew's book The Reconstruction of Warriors, which came out of her PhD research at Imperial under the supervision of Professor David Edgerton.

Pioneering Sussex surgeon Archibald McIndoe treated the men in the Guinea Pig Club -- mostly airmen with horrendous burns -- at a time when plastic surgery was in its infancy. His patients called themselves the 'Guinea Pigs' because of the experimental nature of their treatment.

Jack Toper, featured in the documentary, had a long flap of skin lifted from his arm and grafted up to his nose, so that the skin on his nose would attach to the unburned skin and begin to grow. Until the skin took, the trunk-like strip of skin attached his face to his arm. This procedure, known as a pedicle graft, was relatively common.

Men with pedicle grafts

At the time, the 600 plus Guinea Pigs were very famous. Dr Mayhew says that the club was amazingly well publicised: "If you had a party or an opening in London, you had to have Guinea Pigs there -- if you didn't, you weren't doing your bit for the war effort. Knowing a Guinea Pig became a mark that you were doing your bit too."

A pub called The Guinea Pig was built in honour of the men in East Grinstead, home of the hospital where McIndoe operated. The club still meets every September, although less than 100 members now remain.

Whilst Dr Mayhew is delighted with the programme's success, she missed the glamorous ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel because she did not expect it to win. "I didn't think we'd get anything, what with it only being screened on BBC4," she says.

Guinea Pigs with Winston Churchill

Dr Mayhew based her History of Science PhD on the Guinea Pigs after growing up with their story. Her grandmother was one of the nurses who cared for the injured men.

From October, Dr Mayhew will be part of Imperial's new Masters programme in Creative Non-Fiction Writing. Her next book will look at the treatment of men in World War I with similar injuries to the Guinea Pigs.

The Guinea Pig Club is a BBC/TLC co-production for BBC FOUR. The Reconstruction of Warriors is published by Greenhill Books.