Birmingham - Central Technical College and Aston University

Studying optometry in the Midlands.

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As England's second city Birmingham had long been a centre of manufacturing. Even as far back as the eighteenth century various spectacle makers are known to have hallmarked their wares at the Birmingham Assay Office. In the second half of the twentieth century a number of optical firms moved out of London to the provinces, including Dollond & Aitchison Group which moved to Yardley. It was also an early centre for contact lens provision with, for example, G. D. McKellen and Norman Bier's joint practice being established in Frederick Road, Edgbaston in 1953. It is therefore little surprise that training courses in ophthalmic optics should have been offered in the Midlands.

Late 19th century and Pre-War period

Physics classes had been offered by the Birmingham Municipal Technical School since 1895. Classes in optics were introduced in 1925, largely as a result of encouragement by the Midland Local Association of the British Optical Association, a regional group formed the year before.

Aston letterhead pre 1951

College stationery
Pre 1951

In 1927 the Technical School changed its name to the Central Technical College, under which monniker it appears in the lists of approved British Optical Association Training Institutions for ophthalmic opticians in the 1930s.

Post-war period

A former Head of Department, the late Geoffrey Ball, submitted the following recollections to the Students Past project:

Facilities? In 1948, to put it bluntly, there were none! The only room allocated was the Glass Blowing Workshop (run part-time by a Mr Blower!) when I first went there, and you had to hang cardboard charts and astigmatic fans on the walls and take them down afterwards. All ophthalmic lectures had to take place in that room. (There was) a very small general library, a few items of ophthalmic equipment - synoptophore, near-point rules, trial cases and one bench on the side of the room for grinding wheels, polishing mops and so on. There was one tiny blackboard about 4 feet by 3 feet. (The Department) did eventually get a small room sufficient to make two cubicles for eye examination. That very small room (maybe 7 metres x 5 metres) was behind the Glass blowing room. (It was) windowless, airless and extremely hot.

refraction examination

Refraction examination

Patients for examination were obtained via the local Labour Exchange. They were mainly 'minor actresses' resting until the Pantomime Season began and were paid half a crown (£0.2s.6d) for their attendance.

In 1951 G. V. Ball (d.2015) who had already taught part-time at the College, was appointed the first full-time lecturer in ophthalmic optics outside of London. With his father he got out his hammer and nails and converted the eye examination room with shelves for Giles-Archer units, a projection focimeter and Haag-Streit slit lamp. In 1955 he led the students into new accommodation at Gosta Green, a building which had been long delayed due to the shortage of steel in post-war Britain. The first intake to the new course consisted of six students. This early course lasted for four years part-time with a fifth year spent full-time at the College (or as near to full-time as possible). Former students recall that their colleagues all seemed to work already for ophthalmic opticians or be related to one.  

Student medicals 1953

Student medical tests 1953

The 1950s were a time of significant development. Firstly, in 1951, the College had changed its name again - to the College of Technology, Birmingham. In 1953 the neighbouring University of Birmingham was one of the first universities to introduce a compulsory medical test for all new students. The picture on the right shows that these tests included an eye examination, here taking place at the Department of Physical Education. The tests were overseen by Mr A. E. Turville who approached Aston for assistance. The optometrists conducting the tests in the photograph from the University of Birmingham were final year Aston graduates John Sprigg, Valerie Lewis and Graham Pearson.

student careers leaflet 1955

Careers leaflet aimed at attracting
new entrants to a profession with
'good prospects of advancement
and a boy or girl
of the right type'. c.1955

From 1950 until 1970 all new students at Aston were subjected to vision screening using a somewhat home-made device as part of this initial medical. This was an annual ritual that was only discontinued when the rise in the number of students meant it would take five entire days to complete.

It was also compulsory for students to participate in a form of approved physical activity and failure to attend the requisite number of sessions could, in theory, result in disciplinary action.

In 1956 Aston became the first designated College of Advanced Technology (or CAT).

Following on from the Robbins Committee on Higher Education (1963) the recommendation was accepted by the government that the Colleges of Advanced Technology should become technological universities. The central building of the University of Aston (as it was then called) is shown in the next photograph from 1967, when its location at the hub of the city's road network was still considered exciting and modern. It had just been elevated to the status of a university (1966).

Aston main building 1967

Main Gosta Green building

In the mid-late 1960s there was a great increase in demand for Aston's courses. They began admitting more optometry undergraduates than for the whole of Physics. There was now a three-year Honours Degree programme in ophthalmic optics (Manchester, for example, still only offered an 'Ordinary' degree) and very few of the intake had any previous connection with the profession.

The first course in contact lens clinical work to be held at Birmingham was as early as 1947 although the scope of the course did not expand much until 1959 when 12-week introductory evening classes were introduced, though these were still aimed at postgraduates, with a view to passing an external specialist contact lens examination such as that of the BOA. In the early 1960s undergraduates received a one-hour lecture and two and a half hour clinical session in contact lenses each week of their final year.

Manufacturing cubicle 1967

Manufacturing cubicle

A new Clinical Room was established in 1963 offering twelve patient cubicles, followed in 1965 by a new instrument room together with a manufacturing cubicle containing a lathe and polishing machines. In 1966 the subject was brought forward in the syllabus and introduced to the second year students.

An independent Department of Ophthalmic Optics was established in 1968 and as Head of Department G. V. Ball was raised to the rank of Professor in April 1970 and remained in post until 1981.

compliments slip 1981-1986
Departmental compliments slip

In 1962 a lecturer at Aston, A. G. Sabell (1926-2012) began collecting old ophthalmic equipment and set up a 'museum' at the Department of Ophthalmic Optics. This included several early twentieth century instruments and contact lens material presented by Dr Josef Dallos. The collection grew quickly by way of solicited gifts and by 1980 it had grown to a size befitting a five-part descriptive article in a professional journal.

Aston departmental museum
The departmental museum in 2000

Like many university departmental collections not part of a formally constituted museum, however, changes of personnel and accommodation were to affect the priority it was afforded. Tony Sabell retired in 1986, taking part of the collection with him. In turn, part of this was acquired by the British Optical Association Museum at the College of Optometrists from the Sabell Family in October 2016.

Professor Ball in 1971
Professor Ball in 1971

In the 1970s G. V. Ball and Dr Michael Wolffe (lecturer from 1964 and Senior Lecturer 1973-1985) pioneered a full-time two-week experience for Aston students in NHS hospitals, not necessarily locally but in towns and cities such as Exeter, Cheltenham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bournemouth, Nottingham. Steve Parrish (now Professor Parrish) remembers being one of those students, having first studied optometry at Aston between 1973-1976. Asked what persuaded him to take up the subject Steve replied: 'Good status, no out-of-hours work and not as messy as dentistry'! There were 56 students in his year group and the minimum entry requirement was two Cs or three Ds at A-Level, much lower than today. Teaching was blackboard-based and very theoretical:

Geometric optics was difficult and largely irrelevant to optometry. (There was) no real subject choice as it was all compulsory.

A year behind was Martin (now Professor) Rubinstein who studied at Aston from 1974-1977. Having been forced to reconsider a career in medicine he took up the suggestion of his father, an ophthalmologist, to consider optometry. He particularly enjoyed contact lenses, abnormal conditions and ocular examination.

(There were) tutorials and lectures, with some tape/slide teaching in ocular anatomy. (The syllabus was) pretty wide. I would say fairly comparable to the current course at Aston. I'm currently their external examiner, so I know! (There was a) reasonable balance between theory and practice (and) definitely more patient contact in my day, but the course is now double the size.

In the 1980s the university concentrated upon developing areas of technical expertise and one aspect of this programme was the conversion of the Duke Street Garage into a new home for the Department of Vision Sciences.

campus guide 2000

Campus guide 2000

Redefining its mission statement in 1996 the university undertook to focus on subjects of professional and vocational relevance, an approach in which optometry sat very well, becoming part of the School of Life and Health Sciences. In 1997 it reversed the order of its name, becoming officially 'Aston University'.

Did you know? Humphrey Yorke (1941-2017), a lecturer at Aston, is the only man to have been both President of the British Optical Association (the last) and of the College of Optometrists (the second).

student reps

Remember this is an historical article. Find out more about studying optometry at Aston today on their website