This Week in History
Per Ardua ad Astra: Through Adversity to the Stars
For the week of Monday, November 23, 2015
Albert Ross Tilley was born in Bowmanville, Ontario, on November 24, 1904. His chosen career path was unique for the time and would make him a member of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs.
Tilley graduated from the University of Toronto Medical School in 1929, specializing in plastic surgery. In 1935, he opened his own practice, one of only four in the country, and joined the reserves of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). When the Second World War began, he was sent overseas with the RCAF Medical branch.
Airmen suffered new types of injury such as severe burns to the hands and face. Early treatments used tannic acid, a chemical that often left permanent damage. However, at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, England, plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealander, had begun to heal and reconstruct burn injuries. Ross Tilley joined McIndoe in 1942 and together they pioneered many surgical techniques.
For wounded airmen, the road to recovery often involved multiple surgeries. Recognizing the toll that recovery took, the doctors resolved to heal patients’ minds as well as their bodies. Outings were arranged and patients were welcomed in pubs, at dances, and family dinners. East Grinstead became known as ‘The Town that Didn’t Stare'.
Tilley and McIndoe’s patients decided to formalize their shared experiences by founding The Guinea Pig Club, a nod to their experimental surgeries. Membership was open to any airman who had endured at least two procedures. Humour prevailed: they chose a secretary without fingers (so that minutes were kept brief) and a treasurer confined to a wheelchair (so he couldn’t run away with the club funds)!
The 29 founding Guinea Pigs never intended it to be more than a drinking club that would disband at war’s end. But, by 1945, it was a valued source of support and rehabilitation with 649 members. Archibald McIndoe was named Club President, and Ross Tilley the head of the 176-member Canadian chapter. To this day, some chapters of the Guinea Pig Club still hold reunions.
The Guinea Pigs and Tilley are commemorated through the Service of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during the Second World War, a National Historic Event. Albert Ross Tilley has also been honoured by the Order of Canada, Order of the British Empire, Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeons and the Aviation Hall of Fame.
It is the 75th anniversary of the Second World War. For more on the Royal Canadian Air Force’s service, visit the Government of Canada World War Commemorations page, or read Wings of War and Canada's War Effort Takes Flight in the This Week in History archives.
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