Obituary - Dr Barrie Jones
Otago alumnus and ophthalmologist the late
Barrie Jones changed forever the way in which
ophthalmology is taught and practised.
Many Otago graduates are high
fliers with international careers, but few
attain the degree of professional success
achieved by ophthalmologist Barrie Jones.
Dr Barrie Jones
Jones not only revolutionised the
way ophthalmology is taught, but also
brought the gift of sight to thousands in
On his retirement in 1987, the British
Journal of Ophthalmology dedicated an
entire issue to honour his work, with
tributes flowing from "colleagues and
friends who are proud to have sat at his
feet". On his death last year, obituaries
appeared across the world in praise of a
man who had made a difference.
Jones read physics and chemistry
before studying medicine at Otago. He
spent time clinical training in his home
town of Wellington before returning
to Dunedin in 1950 as a registrar in
ophthalmology under Professor Rowland
Wilson, who had undertaken important
research on trachoma in Egypt.
Wilson inspired in Jones a lifelong love
of research-based medicine and of the
study of ocular infections, in particular
trachoma, a leading cause of the world’s
Encouraged by Wilson, Jones moved
to the UK in 1951 to advance his training
in clinical ophthalmology, with an idea
of returning to Dunedin to work with his
mentor. But after gaining a training post
at Moorfields Eye Hospital and enrolling
at the Institute of Ophthalmology, Jones
believed he would be able to pursue his
scientific investigations into eye disease
more readily if London-based.
Within six years he was a senior
lecturer at the institute and an honorary
consultant at Moorfields. In 1963 the
University of London became the first in
the country to establish a chair in clinical
ophthalmology and Jones was appointed
its professor. Under his leadership the
department soon became renowned as a centre for research and teaching, and attracted many young academic
ophthalmologists and scientists from
Britain and overseas.
Innovation came naturally to Jones,
partly because of his Kiwi roots, says his
daughter Jenny Robin Jones.
"His early experience in the New
Zealand bush helped him with his
lifelong career" she says ."He adored
tramping and botany, and it made a
deep impression on him that every living
organism was linked with all the others.
"He took that understanding into
medicine. He had a holistic approach
long before it was popular and the broad
training he received in Dunedin helped
Jones changed the method and
direction of ophthalmic practice
at Moorfields and transformed the
relationship between clinicians
and researchers. He insisted on
all trainees using the operating
microscope, thus spawning a new
generation of micro-surgeons, and
encouraged subspecialisation in
every branch of ophthalmology. His
changes revolutionised cataract and
other ophthalmic surgery, introduced antibiotics, anti-virals and anti-inflammatory medications, and
improved treatment for corneal and
He was passionate about teaching and
was noted for coining memorable phrases.
The indiscriminate mixing of ocular
secretions between members of a family
which spread trachoma he described
as "ocular promiscuity", while an "ocular
condom" was a hat with a mesh around it
to prevent flies reaching the eyes.
His daughter remembers how he
briefly gained the nickname "the pox
doctor" when the contraceptive pill was
introduced in the swinging '60s and he
advised condom use to help prevent the
spread of a chlamydia organism involved
in transmitting eye infections.
"He often came up against the
establishment for clear thinking and
speaking his mind – but quite enjoyed
being outspoken and always had a
twinkle in his eye."
Jones' long-term campaign against
trachoma saw him undertake a
programme of research in the Middle
East, where the disease was particularly
rife. He and his wife, Pauline, spent
several weeks each year in Iran, and
Jenny Robin Jones recalls her mother
learning Farsi so she could communicate
with the local women - something a man
could not do.
"They were very much a dynamic
duo, a hands-on team that was much
more than just a sum of its parts," she
says. "After one trip my mother asked
my father when he was going to do
something for the people who had
provided data for his research for so long."
"This triggered what he called 'an
identity crisis'. The result was a total
switch in emphasis, because he had
identified that the reason for ‘ocular promiscuity’ of trachoma was
overcrowding and poor sanitation"
"From then on his focus was the
far less glamorous work of preventive ophthalmology." He resigned from the
chair of clinical ophthalmology in 1981
to establish and lead a new International
Centre for Eye Health, which enrolled
students from many fields, some
unrelated to ophthalmology.
Instead of offering training in
Western medicine, which was city-based,
he trained people who wanted to learn
about the diseases of their own countries
and were interested in returning home
to work with their people in rural areas.
His efforts led to a world-wide movement
for eye health, with training centres in
Africa, India and America.
His daughter recalls: “When he set
up the new department it was a radical
development for ophthalmology. People
thought he was barmy, but he was
undeterred. He was dedicated to his work
to the point of being obsessional. It was
difficult being in his shadow, but he was
inspiring to be around.”
She remembers when she was little
how her mother took her and her
younger brothers to the hospital so they
could see their father where he was
working long hours.
"It was quite a special thing to have
a parent like that and to see how much
could be done, and how you could be so
excited by things and put so much energy
and dedication into life."
After Jones retired in 1986, he
followed up requests from his students to
help with research programmes in their
countries, particularly with the control
of onchocerciasis (river blindness) in
Africa. By then a seasoned fundraiser
and winner of monetary awards, he was able to fund and pursue this work
into his late seventies. He remained as
Emeritus Professor at the University of
London until 2002 when he and Pauline
returned to New Zealand, where three of
their four children were living.
Although Jones had spent his entire
career overseas, his reputation and Otago
connections have had a positive effect
on the University, says Department of
Ophthalmology Associate Professor
"In ophthalmic circles Otago punches
far above its weight," he says. "This is
the place people turn to when they want
postgraduate training or they want to get
representation on a committee.
"Otago has inordinate influence and
that is partly a result of Barrie Jones."
Jones received many honours,
including a CBE in 1985, the 1986 King
Faisal International Prize in Medicine,
the 1990 Gonin Medal (the highest award of the International Council of
Ophthalmology) and the In ternational
Agency for the Prevention of Blindness
2004 Global Achievement Award.
"He had great respect for those who
had gone before," says his daughter. "He
often talked in lectures about honouring
those heroes who had led the way. Now
he is playing that role for others."
University of Otago Magazine
Issue 25, February 2010