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Origin of Optometry at Cardiff

“at every crossing in the road that leads to the future,
each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past”
Unknown source

Introduction

The change of the name of the ‘Department of Ophthalmic Optics’ to ‘Department of Optometry’ in 1975 at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, represents the first official use of the term optometry in the United Kingdom. Until then Universities only used the name ophthalmic optics and trained ophthalmic opticians who were usually referred to as opticians. The main professional bodies were the British Optical Association (founded 1895), the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers (founded 1629), the Association of Optical Practitioners and the Scottish Association of Opticians.
The adoption of the word optometry by the University of Wales constituted a revolution in the British terminology of the profession as the old terminology was deeply entrenched in the psyche of the practitioners and the public, and remained so for many more years. The happening at Cardiff became a milestone, which had an extraordinary impact on the discipline and the profession.

Brief history

Since the 17th century individuals involved in optical instruments, spectacles, lenses, optical science have been known as opticians. In the early part of the 20th century opticians in the UK who performed sight-testing and dispensing to correct errors of refraction became known as ophthalmic opticians. Courses of training for ophthalmic opticians were devised firstly by the associations and soon afterwards by training institutions. The first such course appears to be at Northampton Institute (now City University) in 1908. It was followed by Manchester College of Technology (now Manchester University) in 1920, then Bradford (1920), Herriot-Watt College, Edinburgh (1924), Birmingham Technical School (now Aston University) in (1926) and at Cardiff Technical College (now Cardiff University) in 1935. In all instances the course was provided within the Department of Physics as was suggested by the word optics in its title, except at Northampton where it was taught in a separate Department of Applied Optics.

UWIST 1974

The ophthalmic optics course at Cardiff Technical College and later UWIST was taught as an ancillary subject within the Department of Applied Physics. In the 1970-71 academic year it became a separate Department of Ophthalmic Optics with a senior Lecturer Mr TSP Tuck in charge. In 1974 a Professor and Head of Department was appointed. The first incumbent of the Chair was Professor Michel Millodot who had been a Senior Lecturer in Optometry at the French-speaking University of Montreal. He began his function in September 1974. The Department had five full-time academic staff and 85 full-time students, all undergraduates.

UWIST 1975

Professor Millodot soon realized that although the profession used the term ophthalmic optics and ophthalmic opticians, very few people understood what it meant. There was confusion among the public as well as university colleagues in other disciplines. They did not know whether it was a branch of physics or medicine. They confused ophthalmic opticians with dispensing opticians, manufacturing opticians, technical opticians, or even oculist and ophthalmologists.
Before Professor Millodot decided to change the name of the Department he sought the advice of the professional bodies and colleagues. The response was almost entirely negative. Nevertheless he persisted in the genuine belief that a single term like optometry described the discipline more concisely and more clearly than a compound term and that some international standardization of terminology for the same profession would be beneficial. Thus on Wednesday 19th February 1975 Professor Millodot presented a request to the Senate of UWIST. The motion was passed without any difficulty whatsoever (the professor of physics remarked that the new term was much easier to spell!) and the minutes read:
“Resolved that it be recommended to the Academic Board that the title of the Department of Ophthalmic Optics be changed to the Department of Optometry that, if this change was approved, the new name come into use from 01/08/75 with any anticipatory action being taken when appropriate”.
Subsequently the Academic Board met on the 6th of March 1975 and the minutes note:
“The recommendation that the title of the Department of Ophthalmic Optics at UWIST be changed to Department of Optometry was approved”.

Reactions

The change of the name ophthalmic optics for optometry at Cardiff had an extraordinary impact on the profession throughout the UK.
Soon after this momentous decision I informed various people and journal editors and I received two congratulatory notes, one from Professor RJ Fletcher of the City University and the other from the Editor of The Optician. Interestingly the latter journal then dedicated an editorial to the subject in the issue of April 18, 1975 (Vol. 169; 4378) and pointed out that, coincidentally, they had adopted the word by renaming the journal, beginning with this issue, ‘The Optician, the weekly journal for optometrists and dispensers’. The editor Philip Mullins, a New-Zealander just could not have expected the explosive reaction to the “offending” word. It is unlikely that it was the letters to editors which had the most impact but I understood that it was most likely the pressure from the professional associations and most importantly that of the optical companies that advertise in the journal, which compelled it to remove the word in the title and to resume using its name ‘The Optician” within just over one year!.
Indeed the term optometry was strongly opposed by most members of the profession and by professional associations and Letters to the Editor of the journals, ‘The Optician’ and the ‘Ophthalmic Optician’ echoed the arguments for and against, which appeared in most issues from 1975 to about 1978 when the City University renamed its Department of Ophthalmic Optics to Department of Optometry.
The main reasons for objecting to the word optometry included the fact that the term ‘ophthalmic opticians’ is the term used in the Opticians Act 1958, the belief that ophthalmic opticians in this country can do more than optometrists in other countries, and possibly the fact that it was an imported word (viewed as Americanism) and not British. Some arguments for its adoption included the fact that a single term is more comprehensible than a compound term, that its ending in ‘ist’ conformed better with physiologist, physicist, psychologist, ophthalmologist, etc. and that international understanding would be facilitated by the standardization of terms.

Repercussions

Following the decision of the City University in London, the matter was taken more seriously in the rest of the country. The antagonistic dust settled to some extent, it was replaced by some years of acquiescence and was eventually followed by full acceptance of the word optometry. All Departments of Ophthalmic Optics in the country eventually changed their name in the next 15 years and/or taught optometry. In 1980 the British Optical Association, the Worshipful Company of Spectacle makers and the Scottish Association of Opticians amalgamated to form the ‘College of Ophthalmic Opticians (Optometrists)’. It was renamed in 1996 to ‘College of Optometrists’ and it is now the sole professional, scientific and examining body for optometry in the UK working for the public benefit. The Association of Optical Practitioners changed its name to ‘Association of Optometrists’ in 1987, it is concerned with the welfare of the practitioners.

Conclusion

It is actually ironic that the word optometry aroused so much opposition in the UK since the word first appeared in 1759 in a book entitled ‘Treatise on the eye” by W Porterfield a Scottish physician who devised the first optometer to examine accommodation. In the first decades of the 20th century the professional associations of Australia and the USA became known as optometric associations and learned journals of optometry were begun (e.g. American Journal of Optometry in 1923, now known as ’Optometry and Visual Science’; Australian Journal of Optometry in 1918, now known as ‘Clinical and Experimental Optometry’). In the UK the ‘Ophthalmic Optician’ ceased to exist in 1984 and was replaced by ‘Optometry Today’ in 1985, and nowadays the term ophthalmic optician has been almost completely buried. Thus it fair to say that this change of name represented a revolution in terminology in the UK, which was triggered by the momentous decision taken in Cardiff in 1975 and which reverberated throughout the profession for a period of about 15 years, until 1990 when all the university department and professional bodies, if not the public and some practitioners, adopted the word optometry.

October 2008
Michel Millodot PhD
Honorary Professor, School of Optometry and Vision Sciences, Cardiff University

Reference
Mitchell M. History of the British Optical Association 1895-1978. Published by The British Optical association, 1982.

Wade NJ, Finger S. William Porterfield (ca 1696-1771) and his phantom limb; an overlooked first self-report by a man of medicine. Neurosurgery 52(5): 1196-1199, 2003.