Our Founders

The idea of improving the health of Africa’s disadvantaged was first raised in 1956 over sundowners at Ol Orien farm on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro by three men, Sir Archibald “Archie” McIndoe, Sir Michael Wood and Dr. Tom Rees all reconstructive surgeons, who were destined to become lifelong friends.


It was in the days before independence from Britain when millions of people living in remote areas had no access to proper medical treatment. So why not, they suggested, take specialised and essential health care to the small bush hospitals that were isolated by terrain and inadequate means of communication. And why not connect these same hospitals to expert medical advice by setting up a radio network with Nairobi as the hub. It was a daunting challenge, but if anyone could do it, it was these three.


They had traits in common: vision, charisma, deep compassion, the courage to explore medical frontiers and the constitution of an ox. Today their names are embedded in AMREF’s history. Sir Michael Wood, Dr Thomas Rees and Sir Archibald McIndoe.

  • 1949

    Dr Michael Wood, a general surgeon, met a visiting plastic surgeon, Sir Archibold McIndoe, of wartime fame. They struck a friendship which saw Sir McIndoe invite Dr. Michael Wood to move to England to complete training in plastic surgery at East Grinstead.

  • 1955

    Dr Tom Rees and Dr Michael Wood were post graduate fellows in plastic surgeries in England, studying under Sir Archibald McIndoe, who was then an expert of his work with Royal RAF burn victims of the WWII

Sir Archibald “Archie” McIndoe

Sir Archibald, or Archie as his friends called him, was born on the May 4, 1900. He studied medicine at Otago University and qualified as a surgeon in 1924. In late 1920s Archie was awarded a John William White scholarship for foreign study and in 1929 was appointed first assistant in surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Whilst in America he met Lord Moynihan, who was so impressed with his surgical skills that he recommended a permanent career in England. Archie later earned his reputation as one of the world’s leading surgeons during World War Two in what was then the fledgling discipline of reconstructive surgery. As Chief Surgeon for the British Royal Air Force, he had performed 4,500 operations on heroic young pilots whose faces and hands had been incinerated when their fuel tanks exploded during aerial battles against the Germans. After the war, Archie bought a farm in Tanzania. Two of the promising young men who trained under him were Michael Wood, an Englishman, and the American Tom Rees.


Sadly, Archibald McIndoe died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1960. It was the same year as the AMRF (African Medical Research Foundation) Flying Doctor Service air fleet tripled in size thanks to the American radio and TV personality Arthur Godfrey, who donated a Piper Aztec and a Piper Cherokee. AMREF had only three permanent staff members but soon they were joined by dedicated Kenyans such as Mzee Godfrey Gathirwa, David Mutava, Daniel Mwangi, and John Sironga, who worked with the organization in various capacities for more than three decades. Tom, Sue and friends continued to raise money, but expenditure that year was only 11,500 pounds.

Sir Michael Wood

Mike Wood was born in 1919. He was educated at Winchester College at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School of London, where he became a surgeon. Michael an imposing six foot plus in height but had the slightly hunched shoulders of an asthmatic. It was this chronic illness and his wife Lady Susan Wood’s roots in Africa that prompted them to sail to Kenya with their children in 1948. Sue’s family, the Buxtons, were missionaries. She had been born in what was then known as the Congo and carried in a litter as a small baby on a six-month journey to the Nile.


Following Sir Archibald’s death, Dr. Michael Wood and other doctors he had co-opted were flying to mission hospitals deep in Tanzania and Kenya to perform rounds of surgery on critical cases. Mike had established a good relationship with the Tanzania authorities and was able to fly to destinations without being cleared through customs and immigration. This saved hours of flying time, but even so the trips were arduous.


The first professional pilot was hired in 1961, but Mike continued to fly his own plane. He routinely flew to three and a half hours to reach a hospital then operated until just short of midnight. The following day he was in the theatre again until late afternoon before flying on to the next hospital. On the return home, the doctors accompanying him would be asleep before they had reached 10,000 feet while Mike had to navigate across Africa, often through stormy weather.


Mike Wood continued to work as a surgeon for AMREF as well as the Medical Director. In 1983 Mike Wood announced he was retiring from AMREF first Director General, vowing not to make the mistake of hanging around when he was no longer needed. Soon after his retirement, Mike fell ill with cancer.

Wood’s regrets on his retirement;  “I would have liked to see our field staff in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia, wherever we operate, run their own show, choose their own projects and arrange overseas finance. Too much at present is concentrated in Nairobi, although as the Foundation’s headquarters, Nairobi should remain in overall control of policy. But I should have encouraged greater delegation.”


On May 16, 1987 Sir Michael Wood, CBE, MBBS, FRCS, Founder and Director General, died. His wife Sue continued to give AMREF moral support, radiating an inspirational serenity and strength that remained with her until her death in 2006.


Other Highlights of Sir Michael Wood

  • Born: January 28, 1919, Guildford, England

  • Education: Winchester College 1932-34 further studies in Switzerland and Austria. Studies Architecture for two years at Oxford. Entered Middlesex Hospital Medical School of London University 1938.

  • Qualified: MRCS, LRCP 1943, MBBS London 1944, FRCS England 1946.

  • In 1966 Dr Michael Wood was invited to University of California Los Angeles as a visiting professor in plastic surgery

  • In 1970 Dr Michael Wood was awarded a distinguished service medal. Medal presented by Vice-Chancellor of the University Nairobi Dr. J. N. Karanja

  • In March 1972, Dr Wood appeared in “This is your Life” TV programme in London where he also attended the Royal Premiere of “The Cowboys” which raised £10,000.

  • In 1976 Mr and Mrs Monnier of Switzerland along with Dr. Michael Wood were presented to H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at Silver Jubilee Celebrations of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Monnier recognized for his leprosy work

  • Dr Wood attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace and received from H.M. Queen Elizabeth the CBE award in 1977 New Year Honours for service to medicine

  • In 1978 Michael Wood published “Go an Extra Mile”

Dr Tom Rees

Tom Rees matched Mike in good looks and has an equally beautiful wife, the indomitable Nan. Of Welsh coal-mining stock, his grandfather emigrated to Utah and staked out a ranch in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. This is where Tom grew up as a member of the Mormon Church, which believes in giving service to others. Half of the 30-odd Rees family of Tom’s generation are doctors.


There are two basic requirements for a NGO in its infancy, a belief in what you are doing and money. Tom, who had a practice in Manhattan, and his wife Nan began fundraising in the United States in conjunction with friends Sue Pretzlik in England and later the evergreen, indefatigable Leonora Semler in Germany. While they were doing this, Mike worked for nothing. Sue supported the family by running the farm they had bought near Archie’s Ol Orien on Kilimanjaro.


Dr Tom Rees would continue to fundraise tirelessly for AMREF and working in other capacities assisting AMREF to grow until November 2013 when he passed away.


Other highlights of Dr Tom Rees

  • In 1979 Lord Porritt retired as AMREF International chairman and Dr. Tom Rees elected was elected as its new chairman.

  • 1996, Tom Rees, the then Chairman Emeritus of AMREF USA, was given In Chul Song Philanthropic Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS).

  • In 2006 Thomas Rees was awarded a special Community Service Award in recognition of his 49 years of association with AMREF. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery gave the honour to Dr Rees at its annual meeting

  • 2007 AMREF celebrated the opening of a Visitors Centre at Flying Doctors Service by founder Tom Rees.