Spoken testimony: an hour with Philip Cole

Our Museum Curator recently interviewed the Founding President of the College, Dr Philip Cole OBE, just days after his hundredth birthday.

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Author: Neil Handley, Museum Curator 
Date: 20 September 2018

Philip Cole OBE, FCOptom was born just as the First World War was coming to an end. Indeed, he told me that as the last Zeppelin raiders flew over Essex on route to attack London, his parents hid him under the staircase.

On his initial choice of career:

Because I’d come out of the army I had to think of a career... and [for] dentistry I would have to wait another year. I knew an optician in Ilford then and he suggested optics and so I applied to Northampton and I was received with a certain amount of open arms – they were short of candidates at that time, so there was only Janet Grant, and Norman Bier and Bob Fletcher. It was a fair amount of mathematics, obviously…a certain amount of practical work with lenses, and of course because contact lenses were hardly in then, they were dealing with scleral lenses, nobody had thought of microlenses by that time.

On his early days in practice:

The practice was down by the station – Brentwood Station – and I came ...to a practice in Colchester, occasionally, because Bethell & Clark – they’re still there –  were in the High Street, and Mr Clark had died, so his widow got me to come down and I came down two or sometimes three days a week and looked after the patients. She was one of the only people, there’s only two people I know, who always called me “P. J.” Just of interest…so there we are.

On the introduction of the NHS:

Well, the big change was volume of patients, because it was free. [NH: Were you surprised by this increase?] No, don’t think so; there’d been so much publicity about it...Of course Beveridge’s idea in the first place was that we should have health centres, not just optical practices, opticians, dentists etc. And of course then we were having problems with money and to build a health centre you’ve got to have a building, you’ve got to have a car park and all the rest of it. It would have been lovely if it had come about. And then you would have had all, everybody, any discipline, within the same building. But it didn’t happen that way.

On the value of the ophthalmic optician to the staging of Shakespeare:

Immediately after the War, we had no tv then, we had to restart, so it started up at Alexandra Palace and it was very crude, in that, everything had to be done as though it was in the theatre. You didn’t have cameras doing offshoots so that…you had to do this and do that and they did Oedipus Rex and in Oedipus Rex the King tears his eyes out and they were faced with a problem there, so Norman Bier and I went to Alexandra Palace and when the King tore his eyes out he left the main stage, came into a cubicle and Norman Bier and I had scleral lenses filled with milk at the time, popped them into his eyes, he went back and did his blind bit, then came back...to have his scleral lenses taken out.

On the original name of the College being The British College of Ophthalmic Opticians (Optometrists):

I don’t think we were hampered by it. It was a flipping nuisance, but that’s about as far as it went.

On his appointment as founding President of the College and amalgamating the three predecessor bodies:

This was a time when really you’ve got to get on with things…and you’ve got to play ball, with everyone you’ve got, even though they come from disparate sources. We just knew that three organisations have got to be one and we’ve got to settle down.

On holding meetings at other professional bodies:

I remember going to...the College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields…we had to secrete ourselves in, through the back door almost. We had to have meetings after six o’clock, when all the big noises had gone home. We almost had to be second class citizens to the surgeons…we couldn’t be seen as being like them.

On his OBE:

I suppose I had the fortune to be at the top of these things when they happened.

On living life at 100:

I still have a car and a chap who I pay to run it and he takes me out at times. I’ve been out this morning…otherwise you could go mad. Although less mad going about now when you’re a hundred, than you might have done five years ago.

For more about the challenges facing an oral history interviewer (and, coming soon, some audio clips from this interview) go to the College Museum's Oral History page.

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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