Oral History

The College is in the very early stages of establishing an oral history archive relating to the profession of optometry.

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Unlike some of our sister professions, notably dentistry and anaesthesia, we have not previously used oral history as a means of documenting historical change by capturing the spoken testimony of those who took part in actual events. Staff at the museum have long thought that this should change. The trouble is that with each day that passes, there is less chance to rectify the omission, either because potential interviewees die off, or their health (and memories) decline to the point that it is no longer possible to tap the source. Earlier technological obstacles, however, are rapidly disappearing. It is now quite within our capability to record the spoken word on relatively inexpensive equipment and save it to a digital file that, with due vigilance, should be possible to preserve in perpetuity without worry that the storage medium (such as tape or compact disk) will become obsolete.

In August 2018 our Museum Curator conducted an oral history interview with the Founding President of the College, Dr Philip J. Cole OBE, FCOptom, just days after his hundredth birthday.

The personal centenary of our Founding President seemed like a pretext too good to miss. Dr Cole was born just as the First World War was coming to an end. Indeed, he told us that as the last Zeppelin raiders flew over Essex on route to attack London, his parents hid him under the staircase. It is little vignettes like this that make history come alive…and at that point we hadn’t even turned on the microphone. So our first advice to the budding oral history interviewer is to take a notebook, because the formal interview is not everything and, indeed, an interview subject will often be the most forthcoming when they think they are not being recorded!

This wasn’t a polished recording. The phone rang halfway through and at another point a member of the nursing home staff brought in a cup of tea. Transcribing the result, we were struck by how often both interviewer and interviewee make use of the word ‘erm…’ and how many questions and answers trailed off to no particular end point. References were made to photographs on the wall that of course the future listener will not be able to see. There were disconcerting moments such as when, just ten minutes in, he announced ‘I think that’s all I have to say about optics’. We eventually spoke for a full hour. There were also moments of intense personal poignancy. For instance, when we asked ‘Phil’ if he had any regrets, meaning with regard to his working life and service to the profession, he chose instead to discuss the early death of his daughter from leukaemia.

An occupational hazard with any form of historical record is that the ‘truth’ is sometimes personally subjective, or may even be offensive to some who may be mentioned, especially where personality traits come under discussion or reference is made to the intra-professional relations between administrative bodies, or those bodies and commercial companies. Mr Cole spoke very candidly to us – his advanced age means that he need not fear for his future career and his status as a ‘grand old man’ of the profession is secure. On several occasions, however, he asked that his comments not be quoted….at least not yet. The interview was conducted on that basis, which is why we are not publishing it in its entirety although the full recording will be made available to any bona fide historian for research use within the museum.

Coming soon: We plan to publish some audio clips from the interview with Philip Cole.

In the summer of 2019 we also interviewed Glasgow optometrist Archie Toppin about his memories of the profession in Scotland, qualifying in the 1970s and adapting to the new market-led enviroment following de-regulation in the 1980s. The recording is available for consultation on-site.

Similarly, in November 2019, we recorded an interview with Alan King about his lifetime in manufacturing optics, in Germany and on the south coast of England.

Have you a suggestion of who else we should interview, or perhaps you would like to volunteer to be interviewed yourself? Contact the College Museum if so.

As well as our own recordings we also hold copies on DVD of some American Academy of Optometry interviews made in the 1980s.


On how to appoint the right man to the job:


"George Aves had a practice in Ilford and also, since the National Health Service had started, we had several county meetings in Ilford…[at] one of those the Secretary was a chap called Reg Pine and George was most insistent we should try and get [him] to become Secretary of the AOP [Association of Optical Practitioners], since he was a very good organiser. So we stood in the middle of Ilford High Road, opposite and George was trying to persuade him. In the end George got a bit irritated, so he said, 'You see Reg, that bus coming there, if you don’t agree to do the job you’ll be under that'. Erm, so…Reg agreed to be Secretary of the AOP. Actually he was an excellent man… for the job".