Book review “Blindness and the visionary: the life and work of John Wilson”
Author: John Coles, published June 2006.
Reviewed by Andrew Elkington, Chairman, The British Council for Prevention of Blindness.
When I was young, my father did not allow me to accept a chemistry set as a present. He was a doctor in general practice and had heard of a twelve-year-old boy losing the sight of both eyes in an explosion at school, caused by the chemicals he was using being mislabeled. That boy was John Wilson. He grew up to be a man who conquered his own disability and transformed the lives of literally millions of people in a similar predicament. This book is a fascinating account of how this was done.
The author has been chairman of Sightsavers International (SSI) for the past five years. Earlier, he had a distinguished career in the diplomatic service, including being Ambassador to Jordan, High Commissioner to Australia, and holding senior posts in Europe and the Foreign Office. All this has equipped him to put Sir John Wilson’s life in an interesting perspective.
The reader of the book should, however, take note of what the author writes in the preface. He never met John Wilson. In piecing together the story he tells, he has necessarily relied upon the generosity of the Wilson family, the views of many of Sir John’s friends and colleagues, and an enormous amount of archival material. The subject of this biography was a prolific writer and much sought-after speaker, and these activities led to the accumulation of numerous publications. Moreover, for many years, he kept a diary in braille. Later in life he dictated excerpts on tape, taking the opportunity to add comments. All this has allowed the author to marshal a huge amount of factual information and it is fortunate that his background enables him to present this in a manageable form. I rarely found these passages indigestible, and the student of the evolution of the many national societies, both for and of people who are blind, will treasure the myriad details.
Most biographies take a chronological format. This account is different. Whilst the first two chapters follow the traditional pattern, chapters 3 and 4 deal with the themes of John Wilson’s work in Africa and Asia. The next two chapters cover the later part of his life in general terms, whilst chapter 7 explores Sir John the man. Finally, there is a section on his legacy, which I found particularly fascinating.
So much for the mechanics of the book. What did I learn? The reader should remember that any reviewer’s choice is personal, but for me the following points stood out. First, as an ophthalmologist, it was hurtful and humbling for me to learn that John Wilson was angered that he had not been told the truth about the extent of his eye injuries. He evidently felt that his being allowed to hope that some useful vision might return, when this was obviously not the case, was cruel. Then there was his determination to overcome his disability. He was gifted intellectually and this, combined with hard work, led to his gaining a place at Oxford University. He rowed for his college. All this fits in with his attitude that those who are blind “are normal people who cannot see.” His resilience was remarkable. He had “a stamina that compels admiration.” Another trait was the way in which he encouraged and supported others. In this connection, readers of the CEHJ will be interested to learn that he strongly backed Professor Barrie Jones’s initiative in setting up the International Centre for Eye Health. This book traces Sir John moving from an emphasis on rehabilitation to one on prevention, a concept that the Centre enshrines. It also describes his progressive interest in preventing disability in general. His hearing gradually failed, allegedly because the antibiotics used to treat an attack of amoebic dysentery proved toxic, and this, no doubt, spurred him on to help deaf people, who, it is claimed, outnumber people who are blind.
Lady Wilson plays a pivotal role in this narrative, not only as a devoted wife of 55 years, and the mother of their two children, but also as a professional colleague. She coined the description ‘river blindness’ for onchocerciasis. She is a historian by training, and with a charm that led to the income of SSI increasing ten-fold when she was in charge of fundraising. Her skill as a photographer greatly helped in this respect.
It is good to have documented the many awards that Sir John received. What gave him most pleasure was becoming an Honorary Doctor of Civil Law of his old university. The Head of his College described him as perhaps the most remarkable of the College’s alumni: “A man without sight, with a worldwide vision.”
I met Sir John only once. He spoke in the Royal Albert Hall to an audience of over three thousand. We were all riveted. You could have heard a pin drop. At the reception afterwards he was the life and soul of the party, being particularly interested in the views of the young people present. Then I was introduced: a privilege I shall never forget. I did not mention the chemistry set.
Blindness and the visionary: the life and work of John Wilson is published by Royal National Institute for the Blind, www.rnib.org.uk. It is also available as a CD-ROM for people with sight problems. Price: UK £16.99