From 1917 to 2017: 100 years of eye health and sight loss

Post date: 
Friday, 31 March 2017
Birthday cake

‘We feel that with the publication of this, our first number of The Beacon, a new milestone in the history of The National Institute has been passed,’ read an article in 1917. Today, The Beacon has become NB Online, and The National Institute has become RNIB. We mark some of the milestones that have happened during a century of publication.

Tags NB Online


The Beacon is published. With increasing numbers of soldiers coming back from the trenches of the First World War with visual impairment, there’s a renewed attention on sight loss issues





First ‘Sunshine Home for Blind Babies’ opens in Chorleywood, looking after blind children aged between six months and six years old



Blind Persons Act – a landmark in legislation for blind people – makes it a duty of local authorities to provide for the welfare of the blind, and extends the old age pension to blind people at the age of 50 instead of 70.


Bristol photographer James Biggs, who has been blinded in an accident, paints his walking stick white so that motorists can see him more clearly.


Chorleywood College for Girls opens. It is the first college for girls with visual impairment. Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen was first set up in 1866.


Bannow House home for blind convalescent veterans and holiday-makers opens at St Leonards-On-Sea. Today is it a retirement home.




The Beacon becomes ‘New’ Beacon, with a new approach. ‘The thirties must be different’ says the editor


Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond set up the Guide Dog Committee (which is now, after several changes of name, known as Guide Dogs).
The four people in their first 
trial class are extremely pleased with their new dogs


Guilly d’Herbemont launches a scheme for a national white stick movement for blind people in France.  Rotary Clubs sponsor a similar scheme in the UK, and BBC Radio broadcasts programmes suggesting that all blind people are provided with one


The Scottish Association of Occupational Therapists (SAOT) is founded




Blind Voters Act – permits the blind voter to take a companion to the polling station


RNIB starts its Talking Books service, initially for blind veterans of the First World War

Pedestrian crossing introduced in Britain


The Association of Occupational Therapists is founded for England, Wales, Northern Ireland


The Association of Occupational Therapists offers the first diploma examinations for occupational therapy in England




Education Act makes new responsibilities for education provision for children with disabilities
Disabilities Person (Employment) Act

The Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital (Moorfields), the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital, and the Central London Ophthalmic Hospital merge to become Moorfields, Westminster and Central Eye Hospital



The National Health Service is established. Initially it provides free glasses


Ophthalmic surgeon, Harold Ridley, implants the world’s first intraocular lens at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, in a breakthrough for cataract treatment. The operation is internally televised – another first – so that other surgeons in the hospital can watch it, as long as they promise to keep it secret.



Harold Ridley leaves the first artificial lens permanently implanted in an eye. This is widely disparaged as far too dangerous and is viewed with considerable scepticism for some years but it opens the door for ocular implants of all kinds. By the end of the 1980s it has become a common technique for cataracts in the US, and is now standard in the UK. (At the end of the 1980s Ridley has his own lenses replaced and points out that he is the only man to have invented his own operation.)

RNIB Northern Ireland established in Belfast


Training college for blind telephonists and typists opens at Pembridge Place, London



UK’s first ophthalmic pathologist, Professor Norman Ashton, discovers that the excessive oxygen given to compensate for breathing problems associated with premature birth can cause blindness. As a result, oxygen is delivered with much greater care and fewer babies develop retinopathy of prematurity


A braille edition of New Beacon is introduced



RNIB establishes the National Eye Donor Scheme, encouraging people 
to donate their eyes after death for corneal grafting and other therapeutic purposes


Norman Ashton sets up the research funding organisation Fight For
Sight, which provides funding for some of the major breakthroughs including Professor Robin Ali’s work in 2007 and genetic research into congenital cataract and keratoconus


Dr Charles Kelman introduces phacoemuilsification surgery – using ultrasonic waves to remove cataracts without a large incision – which revolutionises the procedure


RNIB celebrates its centenary, with a special exhibition showing its progress over the previous hundred years


RNIB opens Tate House, its first purpose-built care home for deafblind people 



The British Association of Occupational Therapists (BAOT) is formed from a merger of The Association of Occupational Therapists and The Scottish Association of Occupational Therapists



Education act requires local authorities to ‘make provision for handicapped children in ordinary schools’ wherever practicable



Professor Alan Wright of the University of Edinburgh identifies the first gene in retinitis pigmentosa (RP), which becomes one of the main subjects for genetics research

UK Corneal Transplant Service established

Boots Opticians opens its first offices


Dr Shomi Bhattacharya of the University of Edinburgh locates the first gene locus associated with retinitis pigmentosa. This builds on Wright’s research and opens up the field of genetic research into the eye further
Chorleywood and Worcester Colleges merge to become RNIB New College Worcester (since 2007 a separate independent school, New College Worcester)


Professor Roy Taylor of Newcastle University starts his mobile eye screening programme for people with diabetes from the back of a second-hand ambulance. Over the next two decades the programme is taken up across the UK. Today, the NHS Diabetic Eye Screening Programme, introduced by the UK National Screening Committee (UK NSC) in 2003, invites approximately 2.5 million people for screening every year and is a major reason why diabetic eye disease is no longer the leading cause of blindness in adults of working age

First Rehabilitation Worker Course is introduced by the National Mobility Centre, the North and South Regional Associations for the Blind



London Association for the Blind (first founded in 1857) changes its name to Action for Blind People


The Disability Discrimination Act makes it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of their disability, and compels employers and others to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled people


The Broadcasting Act 1996 legislates for a percentage of TV programming to provide audio description for viewers with visual impairments.

New Beacon is first produced on electronic disk, on a trial basis 


RNIB launches The Helpline telephone service. Today it encompasses departments including eye health, counselling, bursaries and benefits, and a talk and support service


The World Health Organization and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness launch VISION 2020: The Right to Sight, the global initiative for eliminating avoidable blindness



The Age-Related Eye Disease Study1 study concludes that very high levels of vitamin and minerals including vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc reduce the risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration by 25 per cent
New Beacon celebrates its 1000th issue


The Royal College of Nursing publishes its first competence framework for ophthalmic nurses
Apple launches its first version of VoiceOver on desktop and server Macs. Over the next decade this feature is extended to iPhones and iPods


The launch of the London Project to Cure Blindness, a collaboration of scientists and clinicians working on stem cell treatments for eye disease, especially age-related macular degeneration
Professor Robin Ali and his colleagues at University College London begin the world's first gene therapy trial in the eye, delivering the RPE65 gene to retinal cells in patients who have Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), an inherited form of retinal disease. Initial results suggest that the technique is safe and can restore night-vision in some cases
National Library for the Blind (founded in 1882) merges with RNIB to form the RNIB National Library Service   
Action for Blind People and RNIB combine their services throughout England
NICE approves Lucentis for treating wet AMD. The demand on local services increases dramatically, leading to developments such as ophthalmic nurses leading clinics, reviewing scans, conducting fundoscopies and delivering injections into the eye
Local screening programmes for diabetic retinopathy cover the whole of England
Stock markets around the world crash sparking a global recession



Professor Eberhart Zrenner of the University of Tuebingen, Germany, and his colleagues report that their trials of an electronic retinal implant have restored some sight to three patients with retinal degeneration
The iPhone app Siri is introduced by Siri Inc. Apple acquires the company and relaunches the upgraded app in 2011


Professor Robert MacLaren and his colleagues at the University of Oxford start treating patients with the rare condition choroideremia (affecting 1 in 50,000 individuals) in their clinical trial, injecting the missing CHM gene into the light-sensing cells in the retina
King’s College Hospital and Oxford Eye Hospital pioneer a UK trial of a retinal implant for patients with retinitis pigmentosa
The Rehabilitation Workers' Professional Network formed. 
The NHS introduces cataract screening for newborn babies
Ophthalmic nurses start delivering injections for patients with AMD at Moorfields and other hospitals


Professor MacLaren and his colleagues announce significant improvements in the first patients on their clinical trial


Netfix launches audio description service
NB becomes NB Online
MacLaren reports that his team’s trial of gene therapy for choroideremia has remained effective. This is the first indication that the treatment is viable and could be widely used on patients
NB Online, along with the UK Vision Strategy launches the first Vision Pioneer Awards to celebrate excellence in the sector


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