The Guinea Pig Club


spitfires flown by the Guinea Pig Club“The normal and the stigmatized are not persons, but rather perspectives.” – Erving Goffman, 1963

One of the things I was most looking forward to upon my first landing at Heathrow Airport was the long ride into London in one of England’s famous black taxis.  It all started innocently enough when once I was settled in the incredibly spacious vehicle I  asked the driver a simple question, and to my amazement didn’t understand one word of his reply – experiencing first-hand the old saying “divided by a common language”.  The situation became even more embarrassing and went downhill quickly when he realized from my lame replies what was happening – after all, these guys are smart, they have “the knowledge” (a term applied to the in depth knowledge of 320 main routes through central London that taxi drivers must know without the help of consulting a map in order to obtain a license). Then the true awkwardness set in as he tried to apologize for his poor Cockney English – speaking very slowly I might add.  When I remarked that however difficult their accents are it was the Brits who took to the air and sea in anything that would fly or float, thus saving us both from truly being able to communicate in a common language – German!

Like magic, that one statement seemed to open an entirely new perspective (like maybe Americans had a sense of humor!) and communication.  For the rest of the trip he spoke even more slowly, like he was teaching a child; and I, instead of nodding or saying something inane, admitted when I didn’t have a clue and we started over.  At times we even resorted to pen and paper, so determined we were now to communicate.   Needless to say I ended up having a fabulous ride into the centre of London, when to my surprise he  turned off the meter and showed me Churchill’s war room and other sites before leaving me on Park Lane to attend my conference.

Since that time I’ve had dozens of London taxi rides into the city centre from Heathrow, but none so brilliant as the first.   Much of the education he gave me that day has long since been forgotten. Something that did stick, however, was what he told me about the fate of the pilots who were badly burned defending our freedom.  The Hurricanes and Spitfires flown in the Battle of Britain carried highly flammable fuel which resulted in appalling burn injuries for many of the pilots who parachuted to safety when their planes were shot down.  Most of these men were sent to a hospital in East Grinstead where (later to be knighted for his work) Sir Archibald McIndoe  pioneered the field of reconstructive plastic surgery using these pilots as guinea pigs for his ideas.  They later became known as The Guinea Pig Club.

By the end of the war, there were over 600 of them in all – Brits, Canadians, New Zealanders and Aussies.  Sir McIndoe wasn’t “just” an innovative surgeon, he was also intent on defeating stigma and knew that these pilots were both physically and emotionally scarred, and in all likelihood would be ostracized (and stigmatized) by the very people they were protecting.  With the fear that he was “fixing” men who wouldn’t have a life to which to return, a busy surgeon in the midst of a war found the time to start an initiative to integrate “his boys” into the families of the local community.  He prevailed upon friends (who recruited their friends) to invite these pilots into their homes as guests.  Talk about destigmatization up close and personal…exactly in my opinion where defeating stigma in healthcare needs to begin.

I’ve always wondered just how widespread the impact The Guinea Pig Club has been on the British culture down through the generations, especially upon people who wouldn’t have experienced WWII firsthand.  Although it took me a few visits to realize what it was, it eventually dawned upon me that I was more comfortable in England because no one, and I mean that literally, not one person ever asked me a personal question about any one of my quiggles.  Yes, there is that notoriously famous British reserve angle, but I wonder if it is more that they learned to look at (figure of speech) missing limbs, wheelchair users, people with burns, etc., with a different perspective – perhaps wondering if they might be walking past a hero to whom they owed their freedom.  Maybe the Guinea Pig Club was the genesis of a cultural perspective regarding stigma that benefits us all.

The Guinea Pig Club members didn’t just lead the stand against Hitler, they also fought for the rest of their lives, or perhaps better put, to regain their lives, this time not with Spitfires but with an equally powerful weapon: humor.  When the Club’s first secretary had badly burned fingers, and their treasurer burned legs, they would remark on the advantages – “the meeting notes would be short” and “the treasurer would never run away with the club’s funds”.   British humor at its best, or worst, depending upon your perspective – and proving up the academic Erving Goffman’s statement:  “The normal and the stigmatized are not persons, but rather perspectives.”

It seems clear in retrospect that the members of the Guinea Pig Club held the perspective that confronting stigma was as worthwhile a fight as confronting Hitler – both tyrants intent on stealing freedom.

Posted in Challenging Health Stigma and tagged , , , , , , .