Sir Archibald McIndoe was born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1900. His father, John, was a printer and his mother, Mabel, an artist. He was the second eldest child of three brothers and one sister.
His father died when Sir Archibald was just 15 and his strong-minded mother took it upon herself to make sure her children were given solid guidance and support to make sure they strived to achieve without a father figure. She stressed to him, “You can make whatever you like of your life when the time comes, but the preparations for it you must make now.” This is something he took very much to heart, although it is said that years later he would gently mock his mother by asking, “What if I had wanted to be a cat burglar? Would the family advisors have bought me a ladder and jemmy?”
Sir Archibald attended Otago Boys’ High School and later won a scholarship to the University of Otago to study medicine. During this time, he began to develop a great interest in surgery, where he felt his future would be. After his graduation, he became a house surgeon at Waikato Hospital, but he was already thinking about going to England in order to receive the training that would enable him to become a great surgeon.
However, the opportunity to develop his skills came through a different route. Will Mayo, one of the founders of the American Mayo Clinic, visited the Otago Medical School and offered a fellowship to a graduate, which Sir Archibald received.
Two weeks before he departed by boat to San Francisco, he married Adonia Aitkin. Unfortunately, his fellowship offer did not include the option of bringing along a wife.
Sir Archibald was to spend five years at the Mayo, starting as First Assistant in Pathological Anatomy, publishing several papers on chronic liver disease. Fortunately, he found a way to bring Adonia over and she found work in the Mayo’s pathology department, then later playing piano in the hotel opposite, earning a better wage than Sir Archibald.
When his fellowship was completed, he was offered the post of Assistant Surgeon and developed his surgical skills further. His time spent studying had given him insight into liver function, which enabled him to develop a new procedure for dealing with carcinomas on the liver. In 1930, he visited Chicago to demonstrate the new surgical technique.
About 10 days later he received a call from one of the doctors who had seen his demonstration. He asked if he could carry out abdominal surgery on a patient (a Mr Mancini), who required complete discretion and would pay a fee of at least five times the expected rate. The patient arrived with a notable entourage in a fleet of Cadillacs.
After successful surgery, the patient was whisked away despite having not fully recovered. Before leaving, one of the men said, “Al told me to say thank you for all you did for his kid brother,” and handed Sir Archibald an envelope containing $1000. It turns out Sir Archibald had just operated on the younger brother of infamous gangster Al Capone.
Another spectator of the Chicago demonstration was Lord Moynihan, at that time the president of the Royal College of Surgeons in England. He also watched Sir Archibald carry out a stomach operation and remarked, “You have hands like a ploughboy, my boy, but they behave like an artist’s.” He convinced Sir Archibald that England was the place he should be to further his career and mentioned about potential opportunities that would suit him. Sir Archibald, keen to find a new challenge, decided not to substantiate this offer and made the decision to pack up and go.
While many tried to dissuade him, the man who had helped him develop his surgical skills to this point knew it was what he needed. This surgeon, Donald Balfour, advanced him the money for the passage of his now family of three to England. In a letter of support he wrote, “You have two faults Archie, you turn your masters into pupils far too quickly and they resent it...You also part your hair in the middle of your head and this drives your friends to distraction! No man should look the same on both sides of his face”.
The McIndoe family arrived in Liverpool in the winter of 1931 and travelled to London to find an inhospitable destination not only in terms of the climate, but the potential work situation, too.
Struggling to make contact with Lord Moynihan, Sir Archibald finally arranged a meeting at which Moynihan seemed to barely remember him and questioned why he was there. When he pointed out it was because of a job offer, Moynihan looked incredulous, saying, “Bless my soul, the hospital isn’t even built yet, I can hardly give you a job if the place doesn’t exist can I?”
Moynihan dismissed the claims of an offered position and suggested he get a fellowship at the Royal College of Surgeons before anyone would take him on for surgical work. In the hours after this meeting, Archie wandered the streets of London surely at one of his lowest ebbs. He had walked away from such security to find nothing but adversity in his future, expecting a second child while residing in a cold and damp basement flat.
He began work on his UK fellowship and through a letter from his mother found he had a distant cousin in London, Sir Harold Gillies, a highly regarded plastic surgeon who had transformed the practices of surgery during the First World War. It took about a month to secure a face-to-face meeting with Sir Harold, who turned out to be both a great host and sympathetic listener. He made suitable introductions and secured him work at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, while giving him opportunities to learn about the procedures of plastic surgery.
What was to follow can only be described as an intensive and difficult period of study, work and family life, still living in the dank basement flat, where Vanora would be born. But by 1932, both work and accommodation was improving.
From now until the Second World War, Sir Archibald assisted Sir Harold and bought into his practice. He would find that he was a hard task master and a regular practical joker. At the start of this time, Sir Archibald struggled to accomplish the maddeningly difficult task of sewing pieces of skin together. Six weeks after joining Sir Harold’s practice, he received a letter addressed to ‘Mrs Archibald McIndoe’ telling him that he had been recommended for a position at the Royal School of Needlework and should come for an interview.
As time progressed, his skills under Sir Harold became much greater and so did his reputation. Eventually he felt that his partnership with Sir Harold was starting to prove unfavourable and managed to buy himself out, ready to start his own practice and reap the rewards of his years of dedication. He aimed to put in 10 busy years of work then take a more relaxed pace and enjoy the material benefits afforded by his work.
Unfortunately, the worsening political situation in Europe was to change all of these plans.