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McIndoe after the Second World War

Archibald McIndoe after the Second World War

With the end of the Second World War in 1945,  Archibald McIndoe showed no interest in slowing down his heavy workload at the Queen Victoria Hospital. He was knighted in the honours list in June 1947 and that year’s annual dinner of the Guinea Pig Club was the happiest ever.

The advent of the National Health Service caused McIndoe great apprehension. He saw it as a threat to the Queen Victoria Hospital's independence:

“They've got their hands on the hospital at last, but they haven't got their hands on me and they never will.”

A black and white photograph of a man and woman standing next to each other

McIndoe with his second wife Constance.

He carried on his cosmetic plastic surgery working in Harley Street. He had met Mrs Constance Belchem in 1947 when on holiday with his daughters on the Riviera. They formed a friendship that developed over the next five years. In 1952, Constance announced that she was divorcing her husband, a British General. McIndoe immediately said in that case he would start divorce proceedings also.

He and Constance were married in 1954 and it was the start of a happy partnership that was to last until his death. She visited his mother, now living in East Grinstead. She supported him with the members of the Guinea Pig Club, at first with some opposition, which she soon overcame. The marriage proved a success and her presence at social functions was a great force for good.

McIndoe in Africa

McIndoe first visited Africa in 1947 and was fascinated by the country. His friend, Robin Johnson said years later, that “He seemed to pick up from the sun quantities of renewed energy.” When, in 1950, a parcel of undeveloped land came up for sale on the northern face of Mount Kilimanjaro, he went into partnership with Robin and bought it. They planned to cultivate coffee and cereals. McIndoe worked hard to get the land fit for cultivation, living at first in a tent and then a mud and wattle hut. He had thought to settle in Africa on his retirement, but this proved an impossibility. Robin Johnston had settled down with a wife and a family and was no longer interested in the project. The news deeply hurt McIndoe. He loved Africa with a passion and missed the vitality which he seemed to draw from the sun.

McIndoe (left) with Jack Penn in Africa.

Image Source: Leonard Mosley, "Faces from the Fire" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962) page 193.

Is there a doctor?

The news that a doctor was in the area always brought people with various complaints and injuries. Most of these were cured by aspirin, Epsom salts or iodine. The most serious case he dealt with was a Masai warrior who had been pierced by the horn of a charging rhino. He was gratified to see the man several years after, alive and well, but complaining that he felt a twinge in his back when the wind blew from the East!

McIndoe was in Africa in the period of the Mau Mau terror campaign, which started in 1952. He was often called upon to use his surgical skills in Nairobi where he collaborated with his wartime colleague, Michael Wood. They performed many free operations on the local population. Together with Tom Rees, they set up the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) in 1957, founded to deliver mobile health services in East Africa, an enterprise he was to retain an active interest in until his death. Today, known as AMREF Health Africa, the organisation continues to provide medical aid to people in need across the region.

Mabel McIndoe with her son.

McIndoe’s Mother

Mabel McIndoe, Archibald's mother, had travelled widely after her husband's death and her family had grown up. She painted landscapes wherever she went, but soon after the war, with her health failing, she moved to East Grinstead to be near Archibald. She moved into a house in St Johns Road which she called Aotearoa, “The Land of the Long White Cloud”. Her eyesight gradually worsened, and as an artist she became frustrated at not being able to paint. Against her son's wishes, she insisted on having an operation to have her cataract removed. The operation was successfully carried out at the Queen Victoria Hospital by Sir Benjamin Rycroft, and as she seemed to be well, Archibald and Constance went on a pre-arranged lecture tour of America.

While they were away, Mabel suffered a relapse. Her son arrived back in time to see her before she died. After the funeral he suffered from 'flu and depression and took some weeks to recover.

He said of her:

“She was a tyrant at times, and she would interfere. But she knew me as no other woman has ever done. I shall miss her more than I can say.”

McIndoe and his surgery

During this period, McIndoe continued to operate at the Queen Victoria Hospital, often on a Monday where he worked from 10am. He also spent much of his time teaching medical students both through lectures and using the viewing galleries of the operating theatre of the American Wing.

Bob Marchant, who worked with McIndoe between 1956 and 1960, recalled that:

“The American Wing Theatres were his pride & joy, where he often brought visitors at the weekends to show around”

Bob recalled that McIndoe was always keen to ensure that they were kept tidy and ready for use.  In additional, McIndoe turned a blind eye to the nurses who at the weekend, used the drying ovens for sterilised surgical equipment for other things!

McIndoe’s death

McIndoe’s health had long given him concerns and he had to have his gall bladder removed. In 1956, McIndoe took on the role of Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons and in this post, he reformed the domestic arrangements of the college and raised thousands of pounds for research. Initially there was resistance to his ideas but his success led to the decision that he should become the next president of the college.

In 1957, he, along with many Guinea Pigs, attended the opening of “The Guinea Pig”, a pub built on the Stone Quarry estate in 1957, where he poured the first pint behind the bar.

McIndoe at the opening of "The Guinea Pig" in 1957.

McIndoe attended the annual Guinea Pig reunion in 1958 but was in pain for most of the weekend. He went to America, ostensibly for a rest, but in reality, to consult at the Mayo Clinic about his health. He was diagnosed with a heart condition and knew the only way to prolong his life was to give up all those activities so dear to him. His eyesight also started to fail, devastating news for a surgeon. He flew to Spain where he was operated on. The operation was successful but flying back he collapsed with a heart attack.

For the next few weeks, he tried to carry on as usual. In April 1960, McIndoe drove to London to be guest of honour at a dinner. After a pleasant evening he retired to bed. He died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of the following morning, 11th April 1960.

McIndoe's Memorial Chair at St Clement Danes

McIndoe's Memorial

McIndoe was cremated and his ashes interred at St Clement Danes, the RAF Church, which was a rare example of a civilian being interred there. In September, a ceremony was held at the church for an Episcopal Chair dedicated in McIndoe’s honour by Lady Constance Sibley. The cushion of the chair had the colours of the four Orders of Chivalry awarded to McIndoe during the Second World War: the White Lion of Czechoslovakia, the Eagle of Poland, the Dutch Order of Orange-Nassau and the French Legion of Honour.

The sermon referred to McIndoe as “A very gifted man whom the RAF holds in special affection…”

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