When I saw York Theatre Royal were putting on The Guinea Pig Club; a play about early plastic surgery for battle scarred war veterans from WWII, I was naturally reminded of my own Grandfather and the pioneering surgery he endured after being blown up days before The Great War ended in 1918.
Joseph Parkes was a private during the war and whenever asked about what he did by the family dismissed his role as a cook. He died in the late 1960s but paperwork regarding his military experiences only came to light recently, we were shocked to discover that he had in fact been a runner.
His brother Percy had been killed quite early on in the war but Pte.J.Parkes of The North Staffs Regt. managed to survive physically unscathed until the final weeks of fighting. He was blown up during the Fifth Battle of Ypres, losing a leg and half of his face. Admitted to hospital in France for many months after the war had ended, his final indignity when sufficiently recovered was having to find his own way home. He took so long to get back, his wife Mary believed he had died; causing her hair to turn completely white whilst she was a young mother in her twenties, an apparent result of the shock. When Joseph eventually returned home he was barely recognisable as the tall, handsome young man who had left, as well as his horrific injuries he was barely six and a half stone.
Years of operations began on his face. Plastic Surgery was very much in its infancy but with all the injured war veterans returning there were plenty of ‘guinea pigs ‘to practice on. Joe’s first operation to rebuild his face using skin from his backside ended in disaster; he was in a crowd in Blackpool whilst recovering from his trauma when someone accidently knocked him in the face, sufficiently hard enough to dislodge the newly placed skin.
His operations and recovery continued for many years, he was still undergoing treatment when WWII started in 1939.
For many years Joe worked in the Potteries as a highly skilled master mould maker for Tuscan, a fine bone china works. To me he was my beloved Granddad; he never thought he would have grandchildren when he spent a seeming eternity teetering between life and death in the French field hospital. We had a really special relationship where I spent many hours sitting on his ‘good’ knee, singing, talking and being taught to read at the age of three!
I am really looking forward to seeing The Guinea Pig Club, I’m sure it will bring back memories for lots of people who have had similar experiences to me and my Granddad of the pioneers of plastic surgery.