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Honoring a Pioneer: Albert Ross Tilley

Albert Ross Tilley, CM OBE (November 24, 1904 – April 19, 1988) was a Canadian plastic surgeon who pioneered the treatment of burned airmen during Second World War. Tilley was born in Bowmanville, Ontario and graduated from the University of Toronto in 1929. He was one of the first physicians in Canada to train in plastic surgery, and was the first to teach plastic surgery at Queen's University. A member of the Canadian Army Medical Corps Militia, Tilley was transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Medical Branch at the start of the Second World War and became the Principal Medical Officer. In 1942, he worked at the Queen Victoria Hospital with Dr. Archibald McIndoe where burned airmen were treated. Their patients referred to themselves as the Guinea Pig Club. The treatment of burns via surgery was still in its infancy, and these badly wounded men underwent a great deal of experimental reconstructive plastic surgery. One man, Air Gunner Les Wilkins, lost his face and hands and his fingers were recreated by making incisions between his knuckles. Many burns required several surgical operations that took years to accomplish. Initially the club was a drinking club whose aim was to help rehabilitate its members during their long reconstructive treatments. It was formed in June 1941 with 39 patients. By the end of the war, the Guinea Pig Club had 649 members. In 2006, Albert Ross Tilley was inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame for "his exceptional skills and radical new medical techniques, his total devotion to the treatment of airmen’s burns and reconstruction of deformities, his understanding of the need to treat both the body and the spirit, giving his patients the will and ability to reintegrate into society, have benefited Canada and the world."