Print Bookmark


» Show All     «Prev 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 ... 46» Next»     » Slide Show

Ken Gilkes - the last of the Australian Guinea Pigs

When Ken Gilkes was 20 he was shot down as he piloted his Stirling Bomber back to his East Anglia base after a sortie over Europe for the RAAF. He landed the plane in a ball of flame and was seriously burnt on his face and hands. Not all of the crew survived.

Hardly aware of it at the time, and only just alive himself, Gilkes was transferred to the tiny Queen Victoria Hospital in the Sussex village of East Grinstead, where he came under the care of New Zealand-born Dr Archibald McIndoe, who was pioneering new techniques in the treatment of burns victims and experimenting in the art of plastic reconstructive surgery.

Among other things, McIndoe had noticed that pilots who had been burnt and landed in the ocean survived better than others. His treatment thus used heavy brine and saline baths, rather than the conventional tannic acid, resulting in improved acceptance of skin grafts.

Over the next two years, Gilkes was slowly given a new forehead, eyebrows, eyelids, cheeks and chin as skin was removed from his buttocks and thighs and, layer by layer, attached to build up his face. His hands were also slowly repaired, and he used to joke that he could get away with murder as he no longer had fingerprints.

McIndoe's patients formed themselves into the Guinea Pig Club and, at his death, Gilkes was the last known surviving Australian Guinea Pig. He had attended the final reunion of the club in East Grinstead in 2007.

Charles Kenneth Gilkes was born on February 6, 1923, the eldest of eight children of Charles Gilkes, a businessman who had been in the Light Horse Brigade in World War I, and his wife Ray (nee Duddleston) from Yass, and grew up in Longueville. He went to Lane Cove Public School, North Sydney Boys Technical School and then Sydney Grammar School. He was a talented runner and played rugby union for Grammar and a NSW GPS State team. He spent most of the spare time of his youth sailing on the Lane Cove river and racing with the Lane Cove 12ft Sailing Skiff Club.

After finishing school, Gilkes joined the Perpetual Trustee Company as a junior clerk. He enlisted in the RAAF in 1941 and was sent to flying school in Canada and then to northern England with Bomber Command. He once remarked that small boat sailors often made good pilots, as the skill of sailing a boat to windward was similar to coaxing a heavy aircraft to altitude.

In 1946, Gilkes returned to Australia and married his childhood sweetheart, Roma Bessell-Browne, who had waited faithfully for him. She said, "You haven't changed. You might look a bit different, but you are the same person." They settled Longueville and Gilkes rejoined the Perpetual Trustee Company, where he rose to Company Secretary.
Gilkes had been told to avoid the sun because the skin on his face had come from sensitive areas and should not be burned. However, he was keen to resume his passion for sailing and he did. When he returned to England years later for a Guinea Pig Club reunion, it was found that the Australian sun and salt spray had actually helped his facial recovery better than men in Britain who had kept indoors, even though he had been one of the worst burnt airmen to survive.

Gilkes owned a number of yachts, his favourite being a timber 25ft Folkboat class boat called Corvus, which he sailed for many years. He sailed competitively in various classes with The Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron at Kirribilli and represented Australia at the 1981 Dragon Class World Championships at Travemunde in Germany, with his son, Ian, and brother, Bill, as his crew. He just missed out on selection to represent Australia in the 1972 Olympic Games but the man who beat him, John Cuneo, went on to win gold in the Dragon Class.

Ken Gilkes is survived by Roma, children Jocelyn and Ian and their families. Another son, Greg, died in 1977.
Jocelyn Kroie, Bill Edmondson and Rob Sinclair

Read more:

Linked toCharles Kenneth GILKES (Death)

» Show All     «Prev 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 ... 46» Next»     » Slide Show

This site powered by The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding v. 13.0.3, written by Darrin Lythgoe © 2001-2021.

Short Family Tree - created and maintained by Murray Short Copyright © 2003-2021 All rights reserved. | Data Protection Policy.