In 1956, three doctors, Michael Wood, Archibald McIndoe and Tom Rees, drew up a groundbreaking plan to provide medical assistance to remote regions of East Africa. Spurred by what they had seen of the combined effects of poverty, tropical disease and a lack of adequate health services in East Africa, their collective vision was born in the foothills Mount Kilimanjaro.
In 1957, Amref Health Africa was born.
At that time, there was one doctor to every 30,000 people in East Africa – in Britain it was 1:1,000. Medical facilities were sparse, with rough terrain and often impassable roads making access to medical care difficult for people in rural and remote areas. As this was where the majority of the population lived, Archie, Tom and Michael saw an air-based service as the only way to get health care to remote communities.
Born in New Zealand on May 4, 1900, Archie moved to England in 1931 having done his fellowship in the Mayo Clinic, USA where he received basic training in surgery.
During World War II, Archie’s small hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex received many young pilots of the Royal Air Force whose faces, hands and bodies had been badly burnt or mutilated. He took on the responsibility of trying to ‘mend’ the young men and teach them how to live normal lives once more.
He took on this duty with such zeal and enthusiasm, and he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1944, and later in 1947 knighted, Sir Archibald McIndoe. In May of that year, he was invited by one of his ex-pilot patients to visit him in East Africa. Archie fell in love with the Tanganyika countryside, now Tanzania, and made it his home.
In 1945 Archie took part in the Marks Plastic Surgery Fellowship through which one surgeon would be selected to train under him for a period of twelve months. One of the young men who attended the programme was Michael Wood and another, Thomas Rees a Welshman from Salt Lake City, USA. With the help of the 2 surgeons in his training, the dream of Amref Health Africa and the Flying Doctors began to form.
Sir Archibald McIndoe continued to juggle his life in England Africa. He was elected Vice-President of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1958. With the need for fundraising for Amref Health Africa being rather apparent, he spearheaded the establishment of the UK chapter which took place in 1961. Sir Archibald McIndoe passed away peacefully in his sleep in the early hours on April 12, 1960. He never lived to see his dream for Amref Health Africa grow.
Michael Wood was born on January 28, 1918 in the UK. He studied medicine, and in 1943 qualified as a surgeon.
When Michael moved to East Africa with his family he soon found he was regularly being called to emergencies beyond the confines of the city of Nairobi. Often he had to charter flights to remote locations where no hospitals existed. Mindful of what lay ahead, as the number of these cases escalated, Michael learnt to fly.
In 1954, Michael went to England on a Marks Plastic Surgery Fellowship with Sir Archibald McIndoe. Together with Dr. Thomas Rees, an American surgeon (also a beneficiary of the Marks Plastic Surgery Fellowship), they would develop the idea of the African Medical and Research Foundation and its Flying Doctors Service.
In 1970, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for services to Africa and later in 1985 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
Michael Wood retired from being Director General of Amref Health Africa in 1985 and soon afterwards went on to establish FARM Africa. In May 1987 Michael died of cancer at his Karen home.
Tom’s heart led him into medicine and in 1955, to East Grinstead on a Marks Plastic Surgery Fellowship, where he would be under the auspicious tutelage of Sir Archibald McIndoe. Fellow Amref Health Africa founder Michael Wood had attended the same programme the year before. It would be through Sir Archibald McIndoe that both Michael Wood and Thomas Rees would meet and become friends for life. In the following year, Archie invited Tom to come on a trip to visit him in East Africa, which would prove life changing. Tom worked alongside Michael and Archie on the idea of the providing specialist health care to remote areas of East Africa together with reconstructive surgery as well as medical evacuations to hospitals capable of handling the emergency and gradually the African Medical and Research Foundation began to take shape.
Tom passed away at his home in Santa Fe, NM on Thursday November 14, 2013.