A short history of the Oxford Ophthalmological Congress

1909 to present day

The origins of descriptive ophthalmology are in antiquity. Therapeutics - at least in the form of cataract couching - is also ancient. But modern scientific ophthalmic theory and practice evolved in the mid-19th century driven by the inventions of the ophthalmoscope and the biomicroscope (forerunner of the slit lamp) and by that century’s enthusiasm for the ordering and classification of the natural world.

The great early German ophthalmologists - Helmholtz, von Graefe and Leber particularly - combined accurate personal history taking with detailed descriptions of diseases of the eye. They were internationalists and receptive to advances and discoveries (e.g. the control of infection) in other disciplines.

Robert Doyne died in 1916; the annual Doyne Memorial Lecture was inaugurated in 1917, making it the oldest invited named ophthalmic lecture in the UK.

Robert Doyne (1857 - 1916), the founder of the Oxford Ophthalmological Congress, shared these characteristics. A meticulous observer - see e.g. his 1899 description of “honeycomb retinal dystrophy” or the Coppock cataract - he was also known as an excellent surgeon and teacher, was hardworking and had formidable organising ability. He had a wide range of social, sporting and domestic commitments and was, for example, a founder member of the Oxford Fencing Club, a tennis player, sailor, cellist, playwright and breeder of pug dogs. He had founded the Oxford Eye Hospital in 1886. He was appointed Reader in Ophthalmology to the University of Oxford (the Margaret Ogilvie readership, the oldest senior academic ophthalmic appointment in the UK) in 1902. In 1904, Doyne was elected President of the Section Ophthalmology of the British Medical Association.

The 1904 annual meeting of the BMA was held in Oxford on July 26th to the 29th. Doyne and the Section honorary secretary, Sydney Stephenson, organised the programme, which in concept is recognisably that adopted by the Oxford Ophthalmological Congress in 1909 and still the structure on which the annual Congress meeting is based. Delegates to the BMA ophthalmic section meeting in 1904 were resident at Keble College and the lectures were given in the School of Anatomy. Doyne himself opened the meeting welcoming an international audience in English, French and German. The opening symposium was on retrobulbar neuritis with Robert Marcus Gunn (1850-1909) and Wilhelm Uhtoff (1853-1927) the principal invited speakers. There was a further symposium on cataract surgery (featuring then, as now, a lengthy dogmatic contribution on surgical technique), one on intraocular haemorrhage and systemic disease and one on accommodation and astigmatism. There was a charming contribution by a zoologist on “The Vision of Birds”. Operations for cataract and glaucoma were demonstrated by international surgeons at the Oxford Eye Hospital.

Robert Doyne would recognise that the scientific programme for the present OOC Meetings are based on the blueprint of the 1909 meeting.

The meeting was the first in the UK (probably in the world) to combine these scientific and practical elements with a social programme featuring tours of colleges and evening dinners. It was a great success and Doyne was asked to organise similar events in Oxford in the following years (these meetings were not part of the BMA annual meeting). The Oxford Summer Ophthalmological Meetings held between 1905 and 1908 were of the same academic standard as the original BMA meeting and organised principally by Doyne and Stephenson. They were presided over by Robert Doyne. By the time of the fifth such annual meeting in 1909 Sydney Stephenson, in particular, recognised the undue burden that was being placed on even as energetic and enthusiastic an individual as Robert Doyne. After discussion with other parties, Stephenson proposed to Doyne that the meeting continue on an annual basis, but that the task of organisation be taken over by a Congress Council. Stephenson and Doyne drew up the constitution of the Oxford Ophthalmological Congress, which formally replaced Doyne’s annual Oxford meetings after 1909.

The founding governing council of the OOC had 23 members, including 5 from Europe and the USA. Executive powers were vested in The Master, the Treasurer and the Honorary Secretary. Doyne was elected Master, a post in which he continued until 1914 to be succeeded by Sydney Stephenson, the original Honorary Secretary. Keble College continued as the Congress base until 1947. After brief associations with Hertford and Brasenose colleges, the Congress moved to Balliol in 1952, remaining there until 1996 when it transferred to St Annes. Sir William Osler, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, presided at the opening ceremony of the OOC in the Lecture Theatre of the Department of Physiology on Thursday, 21st July 1910. The programme consisted of descriptions of operations, “addresses” - (e.g. on glaucoma by Mr Priestley-Smith) - and demonstrations of instruments and clinical methods. There were also operations and demonstrations of clinical cases at the Oxford Eye Hospital. The inaugural Congress dinner took place as well as other social events such as a Smoking Concert and expedition by river to Reading.

Although the Ophthalmological Society of the United Kingdom (OSUK) - forerunner of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists - had been founded by Sir William Bowman in 1880 and met annually, the OOC quickly became established as a major UK national ophthalmic meeting. Until the expansion of the College Congress recently it was also the largest meeting. From its inception there was an international flavour with members and invited lecturers from Europe, the USA and the old Colonies.

Robert Doyne died in 1916; the annual Doyne Memorial Lecture was inaugurated in 1917, making it the oldest invited named ophthalmic lecture in the UK. From the early years, Doyne lecturers have been invited from overseas as well as UK ophthalmologists, and since the mid-1970s this has been formalised on alternate years. The list of Doyne lecturers is representative of the best minds in the past century of the UK and international ophthalmology, and includes Sir Stuart Duke Elder, Professor Sir Norman Ashton and Professor Barry Jones. Non ophthalmologists, especially neurologists, have given Doyne Lectures, notably Swithin Meadows in 1969 and Professor lain McDonald in 1983. Other important non-ophthalmic lecturers have included (from Oxford) the Chair of Anatomy, Professor W E Le Gros Clark (1942) and of Physiology, Professor Colin Blakemore (1989). The Doyne Memorial Lecture to mark the centenary, was given by Professor Sir John Bell who is, (as Sir William Osler was), a distinguished Canadian Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University. Sydney Stephenson had been elected Master in 1916 and remained in post until 1922, following which the tenure of the Master was reduced to 3 years and subsequently in 1959 to 2 years.

Amongst Robert Doyne’s successors as Master was his son, P. G. (Geoffrey Doyne - also a notable fencer - (1942-1944). The Congress organisers have maintained the policy, established in the early years, of inviting distinguished overseas speakers to contribute to symposia. These have included Dr William Wilmer, founder of the Wilmer Institute, Baltimore (1927), Dr Harvey Cushing who spoke on the early diagnosis of intracranial tumours in 1932 and Sir Harold Gillies (1935) on plastic surgery of the eyelids.

The 1909 constitution of the OOC, notable for its brevity, has remained unchanged. The minutes of Council meetings reveal that this body and its executive have, however, always been innovative and forward thinking. The first lady member (Miss Lilias Blackett) was elected in 1917 to be followed by (among others) Ida Mann (elected 1926, Doyne lecturer 1929). The importance of the Council as distinguished ophthalmologists was recognised by the adoption of four Council members and The Master as ex officio members of the Council of British Ophthalmologists, forerunner of the Faculty of Ophthalmology of the Royal College of Surgeons (established in 1946 by Sir Stuart Duke Elder).

In 1998, space constraints at the Department of Physiology in South Parks Road led to a move to the much larger and more comfortable accommodation of the Oxford Playhouse. Optic UK who has supported the Congress for many years with a Trade Exhibition moved to the nearby Randolph Hotel and the Congress Poster exhibition to the Ashmolean Museum and, subsequently, the Taylor Institute.

Robert Doyne would recognise that the scientific programme for the present OOC Meetings are based on the blueprint of the 1909 meeting.

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