25 March 2014
It must be twenty years since BH had his first cataract operation. He still marvels at the technicolor world.
In the ‘Eighties we were introduced to “the greatest eye surgeon in the world”. My cousin, who made the introduction and arranged the lunch party, was a man much given to exaggeration and we smiled knowingly at another of his boasts.
But in fact, Sir Harold Ridley, or plain Mr Ridley as he was at that time, did indeed qualify for such a title. He invented intraocular lens surgery: known to us all as the cataract operation; an operation which has saved the sight of some two hundred million of us in the last half century or so.
During World War II, Ridley saw Royal Air Force casualties with eye injuries and noticed that when splinters of acrylic plastic from aircraft cockpit canopies became lodged in the eyes of wounded pilots, they did not trigger rejection as glass splinters did, leading him to propose the use of artificial lenses in the eye to correct cases of cataracts.
He had a lens manufactured using the same material — brand name Perspex made by ICI — and on 29 November 1949 at St Thomas’ Hospital, Harold Ridley achieved the first implant of an intraocular lens, although it was not until 1950 that he left an artificial lens permanently in place in an eye.
The first lens was manufactured by the Rayner company of Brighton & Hove, East Sussex, a company which continues to manufacture and market modern, small-incision intraocular lenses today. Ridley and Pike from ICI agreed that they would never profit from the manufacture of the lens which cost less than £1 each to produce.
The Establishment belatedly bestowed a millennium knighthood on this self-effacing modest man. We only met him once, but I would like to salute his memory today, for it is the twelfth anniversary of my first cataract operation.
Thanks to Sir Harold’s brilliance, I no longer have to ask bystanders what number bus is coming, and BH can see that daffodils are yellow.