The name of Sir Archibald McIndoe comes – deservedly – to the fore in any retelling of the history of Queen Victoria Hospital. As this series of blogs has highlighted, there can be no doubt of his influence in transforming the fortunes of both the hospital and of a multitude of patients through his pioneering surgical work and sheer force of personality. On the other hand it should also be remembered that McIndoe was not working in isolation; the achievements at QVH both during, and following the war, were very much a collective endeavour, and so many others – nurses, orderlies, anaesthetists, as well as McIndoe’s surgical colleagues and trainees – all had crucial parts to play. Whilst there is not space here to tell the stories of all of those who participated in this great work, it seems worthwhile to highlight just a small number of those individuals – a little less celebrated than McIndoe himself, perhaps – who made a real impact both at QVH and beyond.
Sir William Kelsey Fry was a distinguished dental surgeon whose formative experience in his field was gained during the First World War where he worked as part of a team treating facial and jaw injuries first at the Cambridge Hospital at Aldershot and then at St Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup. The team included not only the surgeon and war artist Henry Tonks, but also a young Harold Gillies (who of course was later McIndoe’s mentor), then an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. Kelsey Fry and Gillies worked closely together, each learning and gaining from an increased understanding of the other’s specialism (Gillies in surgery and Kelsey Fry in dentistry), and their highly productive working relationship continued in the years following the end of the war.
Gillies and Kelsey Fry were pioneers of the discipline of maxillo-facial surgery and in 1932, the two were appointed by the Army Council to a committee reporting on these types of injuries. In 1935 they published a report making recommendations for treatment, and advising on the organisation of centres for this to take place which became extremely influential in the selection of maxillo-facial units prior to the outbreak of WW2. According to various sources, Kelsey Fry and Gillies were responsible for the choice of Queen Victoria Hospital as one of the the units; Kelsey Fry’s son was at the local Brambletye School and, anticipating the wartime rationing of petrol, he needed a reason to visit the area (whilst East Grinstead was conveniently situated for Gillies between London and his favourite gold club at Rye!).
Kelsey Fry played a crucial role in the work of QVH’s maxillo-facial unit during the war years and dedicated great attention to training those from the armed forces in the treatment of facial injuries, establishing QVH as a centre of excellence in the field.
Group Captain Ross Tilley arrived at QVH in 1941. As Principal Medical Officer (overseas) to the Royal Canadian Air Force, he was sent to treat the high proportion of Canadian airmen who had been injured in action and found themselves at East Grinstead. Tilley, who had previously trained with plastic surgeons in Canada, quickly became one of Archibald McIndoe’s most trusted colleagues and the two were of the same mind in matters of treatment and their personal dedication to the care of their patients.
Tilley was influential in securing the backing of the Canadian government to build the Canadian Wing at QVH. This purpose-built facility was reserved during the war for the treatment of Canadian casualties, under the care of Tilley and his own team of specialists, but was subsequently given over fully to Queen Victoria Hospital for their own use, and formally handed over in a ceremony in September 1945.
Tilley returned to Canada after the war where he continued to have an illustrious career in plastic surgery. His memory lives on at Queen Victoria Hospital, where there is a ward named in his honour.
Ophthalmologist Benjamin Rycroft arrived at Queen Victoria Hospital at the end of the Second World War to establish a new corneo-plastic department. The field of corneal surgery was one which was developing and growing in prominence but Rycroft’s progress in his work was initially hampered by a shortage of donor eyes, mostly because at that time in the United Kingdom it was actually illegal to donate body parts to the medical profession. Rycroft (along with McIndoe) played a leading role in a national campaign to educate the public on the urgent need for donor eyes to enable sight-saving corneal grafts to be carried out. In 1952 the Corneal Grafting Act was passed by Parliament and became law, and the country’s first Eye Bank was established at Queen Victoria Hospital. Many hundreds of the QVH case files document the treatments and procedures undergone by patients who were able to benefit from Rycroft’s pioneering efforts in this field.
Joanna McConville, Project Archivist