Kanski lives on

Following news of Jack J. Kanski's passing in January at the age of 79, our museum curator, Neil Handley, and College members discuss his legacy in our latest blog.

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Author: Neil Handley, Museum Curator 
Date: 6 February 2019


Put simply, Jack Kanski’s publications were probably the single most important influence on my clinical career.

Professor Leon Davies FCOptom


Distinguished consultant ophthalmologist Jack J. Kanski - best known for his multi-edition textbook Clinical Ophthalmology – A Systematic Approach - died on 5 January at the age of 79. He was a prolific author, both individually and in collaboration, but the aforementioned textbook was, to many practitioners, simply ‘The Bible’. 

First published in 1984 Clinical Ophthalmology was intended as a comprehensive introductory text for trainee ophthalmologists. It emphasised the correct interpretation of clinical signs and featured a large number of illustrations, many of them drawn or painted by ophthalmic artist Terry Tarrant. A theme running through all Kanski’s works was that visual recognition is often a major factor in making a correct diagnosis and memorising medical facts, and consequently many of his books have a pictorial quality that makes them a beauty to look at. As he said in the preface to Clinical Diagnosis in Ophthalmology in 2006, “One picture is worth a thousand words!”

For me his works bring back sentimental memories to my time as a student. Cycling back from Heffers bookshop, with a copy of ‘Clinical Ophthalmology: A Systematic Approach ‘in the basket. It’s probably the heaviest and thickest book I had ever owned, and certainly the most expensive. The book, which I hoped would magically turn me into an optometrist, would sit proudly on my desk, whilst generally evoking a lingering feeling of fear. His works were both aspirational and intimidating. I spent many evenings thumbing through the pages studying each illustration in meticulous detail, only to learn a fraction of what he described. I have no doubt his legacy will live on for many more generations of practitioners.

Daniel Hardiman-McCartney FCOptom


Clinical Ophthalmology has gone through eight editions, the trend having been to grow ever larger. The 3rd edition was the only one to reduce the number of chapters, at the same time as omitting ‘with much regret’ the Further Reading section. Kanski had perhaps recognised that for many practitioners, particularly outside of ophthalmology, his book was often the first port of call. By the 7th edition he noted in the preface that ‘previous editions have also been widely utilised by other eye care professionals, particularly optometrists’. This is borne out by the lending statistics at The College of Optometrists’ Library. Kanski’s works have been issued over 2000 times in the past ten years and account for more than 10% of all library loans.

This was my ‘go to’ book for my pre-registration year. When seeing interesting new cases, whether in my clinical sessions or my observations during eye casualty, I would always refer back to ‘Kanski’. It helped me during my year as a trainee, and continues to help me now.

Krupa Mistry MCOptom


More than just a doorstop or substitute dumb-bell, Clinical Ophthalmology serves as a running historical commentary on developments in the field. In 1999 the 4th edition introduced a new chapter on ocular trauma and removed ‘obsolete concepts’, so although still aimed primarily at trainees, the book could also provide a reference and update for experienced professionals. Ever mindful of his readership and the extent to which they used it practically, Kanski introduced a greater emphasis on practical management in the 7th edition.

Kanski was the Holy Grail during my pre-reg and helped me become confident in my role as an optometrist. Even now, it consistently provides a concise point of reference when I come across something unusual, and has the added bonus of being easy to access, succinct, and ad-free... which is great in a time pressured environment!

Farah Awan MCOptom


Throughout his writing, Kanski aimed to provide the reader with a useful and level-appropriate guide to practice. Many were intended as revision guides for exam preparation. Almost all of them are characterised by his desire to present a user-friendly format, concise text and high quality colour clinical photographs. His 1986 book The Eye in Systematic Disease (co-authored with Dafydd J. Thomas) was specifically targeted at non-ophthalmologists and is also to be found on our library shelves. Indeed, if we didn’t have books by Kanski we could probably manage with a smaller library space, but it is surely unthinkable that ‘Kanski’ which is now a brand as much as the man, will disappear from reading lists any time soon.

Neil Handley MA AMA FRSA
Museum Curator, The College of Optometrists

Neil Handley is recognised as one the UK’s principal historians of spectacles, vision aids and opticians. He has been curator of the British Optical Association Museum at The College of Optometrists in London since 1998 and is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers.

The Curator is available for lectures and informal talks off-site as well as guided tours of the museum gallery and College Meeting Rooms. Considered to be an authority on ophthalmic history he can also advise on items on optical and optometric heritage including their identification and dating. He has been awarded the medal of the Ocular Heritage Society of America on several occasions.

Neil was awarded the Associateship of the Museums Association in 2002 and was one of the first 17 museum professionals in the country to gain the AMA+ qualification in May 2007. He now serves as a Museums Association Mentor for younger curators.

Neil was elected Chairman of the prestigious London Museums of Health and Medicine (2011-14), widely considered within the profession to be one of the most dynamic and go-ahead museum specialist networks. During this time he oversaw that organisation's first strategic review for fifteen years. He is also a past Vice Chairman of the Scientific Instrument Society and became a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA) in 2012.

Front cover of the book Cult Eyewear 2011

Neil  has published articles on spectacle frame design, the history of opticians, artificial eyes and facial prosthetics. He has contributed to a number of books on the history of the subject, including a chapter on artificial eyes for the book Devices and Designs (2006) and the major German publication Treasury of Optics (2012). He spent much of 2009 and 2010 writing a book on Cult Eyewear, the first serious analytical study of the historical development of branded fashion spectacle frames, published by Merrell on 27 September 2011. He also co-authored, with David Cartwright, the second volume of the College History, The College of Optometrists: A History 1998-2015, published in October 2015. He has also written articles for journals as diverse as Optometry in Practice, Contact Lens and Anterior Eye, Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, From the Master and Wardens (newsletter of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers), Ophthalmic Antiques, Gewina (Dutch Journal for the History of Science), Antiquarian Horology and Pharmaceutical Historian.

Contact the Curator by email

Or follow him on Twitter @neilhandleyuk


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