Professor Robert Jackson Fletcher: 1925-2019

  • 8 Aug 2019

We are deeply saddened to announce the death of Professor Robert Jackson (‘Bob’) Fletcher.

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Professor Robert Jackson (‘Bob’) Fletcher FCOptom, who has died aged 94, was appointed in 1966 to the first chair in optometry in a British university. This made him the first Professor of Ophthalmic Optics outside of the USA.

Himself the son of an ophthalmic optician, he was born above his father’s consulting room in 1925 and, from 1941-1943, was one of a very small number of practitioners to train at the Northampton Polytechnic during the Second World War, where contemporaries included Norman Bier and Philip Cole.

Many of his subsequent students may be surprised to learn that he actually failed his first take of the SMC Professional examinations in 1943, because, as he put it, ‘I hadn’t read the examiner’s book’. Undaunted, and following a period of service in the RAF, he eventually qualified both as an FBOA (in 1946) and an FSMC (in 1948) and initially he was known professionally as R. J. Fletcher Jnr. 

From 1948 he attended patients in Twickenham and Manchester during his early research years, within the 'Supplementary' eye service. This made him one of the last surviving opticians to remember the introduction of the NHS. 

He was appointed to the teaching staff of the Northampton Polytechnic in 1950, originally teaching physiological optics, promoted to Principal Lecturer at what had become the Northampton College of Advanced Technology (CAT) in 1959 and took over as acting Head of Department on the sudden death of John Walton in 1964. As Head of the Department when the City University was created in 1966 he introduced a new three-year BSc (Hons) degree and oversaw a great expansion in postgraduate courses and research work, whilst teaching several generations of future optometrists and revelling also in the pastoral role. He also chaired the Joint Advisory Board for the optometry profession. 

For twenty years, from 1958, he served on the Council of the British Optical Association. He was also awarded the BOA Research Medal in 1963 and served as BOA President from 1967-1968, courting controversy when he downgraded the Council luncheons to a plate of sandwiches. He remained on Council until 1978. A firm believer that the BOA should disband, he was disappointed when, in 1976, he stood unsuccessfully for the ‘Shadow’ Council overseeing the formation of the College of Optometrists.

His specialist interests were many, including ocular prosthetics, low vision aids, vision screening and industrial optometry. He was instrumental in introducing contact lens instruction for all his optometry students in 1951 and was a former President of the Contact Lens Society and Honorary Editor of Contact Lens Abstracts. He invented the MAVIS Master vision screener which led to a significant rise in workplace eye assessment, but his 1960s prediction that optometry graduates would increasingly find employment in industrial settings proved wide of the mark. He was particularly interested in colour vision and designed the card-based City University Test in 1976 (2nd edition 1980 and 3rd edition 1998), as well as a set of plastic units produced in conjunction with Hamblin Ltd (1983) that were considered suitable for use with children or mentally handicapped adults. Unusually, this test was designed specifically for use under tungsten lighting. As Emeritus Professor of Optometry and Visual Science he won a College of Optometrists competition to design a new colour test lantern in 2000 and was still designing lanterns in his mid 80s, including the CAM Fletcher-Evans Colour Vision Test and its smaller, more sophisticated successor, the Clini-Lamp Fletcher-Evans Colour Vision Test. 

A fluent speaker of Norwegian, he was delighted to assist in the establishment of optometry courses,  based on the British model, at the University of Kongsberg. Additionally he helped establish courses in Italy, Malaysia, Iceland, Israel, Nigeria, Portugal and Ethiopia; in most cases this was in support of former Northampton/City students who hailed from those countries and with whom he maintained lifelong friendships. He also helped develop the existing courses in Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia and made well-publicised tours of the USA and South Africa. A keen amateur artist he sculpted likenesses of many of his international friends and colleagues in the world of optics. A good proportion of the survivors attended a 90th birthday symposium held in his honour in June 2015.

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