Studying optometry in the north of England.

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Manchester was at the birth of optical education. Courses were offered by the great Lionel Laurance in the late 1890s.

A student remembers: J. S. Wallbridge of Liverpool recalled his training in an a letter to the Optician in 1936.

I had the great privilege of being a pupil of [Laurance] during 1898 and 1899 and many of his emphatic remarks remain vivid in my mind. He was practically the founder of the old Manchester and North of England Optical Society, and he introduced it to most of his pupils towards the end of the course...he marked some of my homework 'idiotic' [but] he was a charming fellow and sowed many good sound seeds in optics...he implored us never to cease studying

In addition to preparatory courses, Laurance also offered a further class to those who had passed the SMC professional exam held in Manchester in 1899 but was disappointed that only four men elected to attend.

Evening classes were also provided c.1904 by a Mr J. W. Wilkins covering applied optics (both elementary and advanced) assisted by Mr McKellen. Wilkins left to become Head of the Chester Secondary School and was succeeded by a former pupil, Mr H. Williams circa 1911/12 and later still by Leonard Lewis Liebermann (who, like Williams, passed his own BOA exam in 1907).

The Manchester College of (Science and) Technology

This College, in Sackville Street, was one of the trailblazers in clinical instruction for opticians along with the Northampton Institute, the Bradford Technical College and the British Optical Institute. Much later, in 1964, it introduced the first optometry degree courses.

The College had its origins in the Manchester Mechanics Institute of 1824 and that date is enshrined in the current university's corporate logo. The Manchester Municipal College of Technology grew out of this in 1918 and could award qualifications provided by the Victoria University of Manchester.

In June 1910 the Dioptric Bulletin rejoiced that:

'...arrangements have been made with the City of Manchester School of Technology to open out specially for the British Optical Association a ful B.O.A. curriculum of optical and optological education. The actual Syllabus is in process of being drafted, and I believe that I am not far out in prophesying that the courses will be the most complete and most specially adapted to optology of any optical school in the world. Anyone who has inspected the School, which is possibly one of the most expensively and completely equipped of any technological institution, will know that whatever is done will be well and thoroughly done if arranged under the auspices of Professor Reynolds, the Director of Higher Education, and Professor Gee, the Physics Professor'. Early discussions were about maybe offering full-day courses on one day per week instead of evening classes that might last only an hour.

There is some indication that courses in optics were offered by a Professor Gee as early as 1913, but we know nothing about them. Perhaps they did not survive the outbreak the First World War

W B Barker

Vocational courses in Applied Optics were introduced some time around 1920 and expanded in 1927 under the brilliant but somewhat formal W. B. (Bill) Barker FBOA, who was in charge (as Senior Part-Time Lecturer) until he retired in 1947.

We also illustrate here an anonymised Manchester examination pass letter from 1948.

Manchester exam pass letter 1948

A Student Remembers: A student who wishes to remain anonymous told the Students Past project about his time at the Manchester College of Technology between 1946-1948.

The course was for two years full-time and all the participants were keen on the subject. They had to be as most had already sacrificed much of their youth having spent three or four years fighting in the Second World War: During my naval service as Seaman then Officer I kept up my studies of German and French. The Applied Optics Course had German in its first year (astonishing today). The only reason I found was that much optical research was 'in German publications'. (I assume they were thinking of Carl Zeiss etc.) Questionable! Lectures were always well attended except there was a revolt by 18 of the 20 students about having to take German. Dr Lipson agreed to exempt anyone from German but they would not qualify for any certificate on completing the course. The others didn't worry about that. Like the two of us who took German we were all [only] interested in getting our FBOA or FSMC by external examination. College certificates were to us irrelevant

...the Manchester course (again surprisingly) had Mathematics in its first year also, along with Physics and some Zoology.... what use was being taught the numerous legs of the crayfish? My School Certificate was acceptable for entry.

War-time evacuation had prevented this student taking his Higher School Certificate, but we might note how time in the Armed Services could provide an alternative educational opportunity to those who took it.

Twenty students were admitted to the course...most were RAF or Army Officers. I was the only Naval Officer...There was one female as I remember.

Studies - no problem, I found them quite easy with on exception. Dr Lipson (later Professor) worked all his optical formulae in focal lengths and distances so that there were masses of reciprocals. One or two of us tried to get him to use vergences or powers, thus eliminating most reciprocals but I think that method was quite foreign to him. He and Dr Smare were excellent lecturers. The main thing I recollect was the great difference between the College full-time staff and the visiting people who came in from their practices to teach refraction, physiological optics etc. ....I was very disappointed in the standard of their lectures contrasted with the brilliance of say Dr Patterson (Anatomy) whose colour diagrams on the board were beautiful and his lectures equally professional.  

Dr Lipson (1910-1991) was a distinguished x-ray physicist appointed Professor of Physics in 1954. Dr Smare was later Head of Department at Bradford.

For refraction we were in an old annexe over the road from the main building. Equipment in say the Physics laboratories was excellent but, as I remember, not good in the subjects of eye examination.

The course, like most of the others in traditional colleges was very much theoretical optics-based, rarely patient-centred. Indeed admission to the hospitals in the era just before the National Health Service was actually barred to ophthalmic opticians, such was the opposition of the medical profession.

There was no student life at this time so soon after the War. The only social activities were those arranged by the students themselves out of hours. Wednesday afternoons were free:

I carried golf clubs on buses and was stared at by everyone.

Getting a job on graduation in 1948 was easy. There was great demand due to the NHS. To become a 'qualified optician' required the completion of just one year's supervision before taking up membership of the British Optical Association. For various reasons the Manchester course (like that at Birmingham) was always more closely associated with the BOA than the other competing professional bodies that existed at the time.

Harry Marton FBOA
Harry Marton FBOA

Harry Marton (1902?-1978) was one of the key figures in 20th century optometry and a BOA stalwart including a term as President 1949-51. He had practised optics on the high street since the mid 1920s and so had a thorough grounding in the profession when he was asked to succeed the late W. B. Barker as full-time lecturer in charge of the department in 1950. Barker had died in August but the Senior part-time lecturer J Cowan Meadley who might have been expected to succeed him dropped dead in front of his students in October. He had just handed out the class some experimental bench tests when he collapsed. Marton was officially appointed Senior Lecturer in 1958 and stayed in post until his retirement in 1969.

Dr Bertram Bowden of Manchester 1954

Dr B. V. Bowden, 
Principal of the Manchester
College of Technology,
pictured in 1954

In the 1950s the College was expanding significantly as a centre for technological education under the direction of Bertram Bowden (1910-1989) from 1953. By 1956 the College had obtained independent university status as the Manchester College of Science and Technology, under its own Royal Charter although it continued to award University of Manchester degrees until 1993.

As part of this expansion of role and status the optics department under Marton is known to have been working towards the creation of a full honours degree course in 'Physiological Optics' but it was then overtaken by events at the colleges in Birmingham and London. The former introduced Honours Degrees in ophthalmic optics whereas Manchester at the time was offering only Ordinary degrees. This caused some resentment and rather dulled the gloss on what would otherwise have been the triumphant claim of having introduced the first British degree course in ophthalmic optics (October 1964). A 'new' Optics building occupying renovated premises on the corner of Charles Street and Princess Street was opened in November that year with a plaque declaring 'To W. B. Barker, his dreams are here'. The site of this building is now occupied by the Ibis Hotel.


UMIST logo 2001

UMIST logo 2001

In 1966 the College was transformed into the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) and following Marton's retirement the Optics Building was renamed in his honour, a rare event for a living person. The Departmental Library was renamed after him in 1978 and its collection was swelled by his personal book collection. The library opened in refurbished accommodation in the Moffatt Building in February 1982 and served the department well until recently when computer-based learning resources took greater prominence.

The Department of Optometry & Vision Sciences, subsequently the Department of Optometry and Neuroscience, at UMIST also came to be the home of Eurolens Research, The European Centre for Contact Lens Research, which occupied new facilities in March 1995.

University of Manchester

Manchester Department 2008

The Manchester Department, including the Marton Library,
pictured in 2008

Although UMIST developed an excellent international reputation its name meant that it was always liable to confusion with the Victoria University of Manchester (founded as Owens College in 1851), its period as an entirely independent degree-conferring university was destined to be short (1993-2003) and there was some inevitability about the eventual merger in October 2004. The current department, part of the Faculty of Life Sciences, has a particularly strong programme in Visual Neuroscience and Applied Optics. As is often the case this specialisation developed from the research interests of specific professors.  

The department moved again to the South Campus in Dover Street during the Summer vacation in 2011. As a consequence of this move a number of materials including the contents of the Frank Dickinson memorial display were transferred to the BOA Museum here at the College of Optometrists.

Remember this is an historical article. Learn more about studying optometry in Manchester today.