Obituary: Sir John Wilson

A SCHOOL chemistry accident deprived John Wilson of his sight at the age of 12. He died last week, at 80, revered for instigating the saving of sight in some 50 million people in Third World countries, and for being the prime mover in the greatest initiative ever mounted to eliminate all avoidable disability across the world - a now continuing and sustainable development he considered as providing no more than a basic human right.

Medium in stature, modest, charming and with a disarming wit, Wilson was a mental giant with a tenacity of purpose that could move mountains. Meeting him for the first time, and ready to make polite allowance for his disability, people regularly found themselves made uncomfortably aware of their own shortcomings; and, thereafter, became metaphorically breathless in their efforts to keep pace with his penetrating, driving discourse, delivered always in a precise, quiet, clipped and confident, free-flowing, well-considered manner.

It was as though that childhood tragedy had been a challenge, not a setback - something that he, a devout Anglican, believed, if ever so humbly, had acted as divine guidance toward his life's work.

Wilson's capacity for demystifying blindness for sighted people, and in dignifying the status of the unsighted, most particularly in the underdeveloped countries, played a huge part in his purpose. For instance, it was a brilliant, headlining event when, in 1969, he instigated the ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro by a team of blind young Africans in a milieu where the sightless were often condemned to a life of begging, or worse, and who were rarely regarded as trainable for gainful employment, let alone capable of participating in a feat of the highest endurance.

He had a strong distaste for humbug, which is lightly illustrated by the comedy he found in people's efforts to find as many euphemisms for the word "blind" as for the word "dead". One of the best in his collection was "you people who can't see very well", another was the puzzling "you carriers", which suggested communicable disease, but which was explained by the utterer as a reference to Wilson's white stick: "I just meant," he said, "how long have you been carrying one of those things?" But first prize went to the Australian politician who reduced a blind-school audience to hysterics by referring to them as "you gallant night fighters".

Just as reflective of Wilson's attitudes, but in serious mode, was his comment: "To someone who cannot see the colour of a man's skin, there is a lunatic quality in racial controversy."

From Worcester College for the Blind, he won a scholarship to St Catherine's College, Oxford, where he took a double First in Law and Sociology. He turned down a university teaching post and, instead, worked in wartime London at the Royal National Institute for the Blind. He met Jean McDermid, his future wife, at Oxford when they were fellow students. They married in 1944.

She was destined to be much more than simply his eyes, though she was that too. Meeting a life's partner ready and anxious to dedicate herself to the causes he espoused, offered another example of what John Wilson saw as divine ordering. His wife's massive contribution to their joint work was later to be recognised when, in 1981, she was appointed OBE.

Wilson's report after a government- sponsored fact-finding tour of British overseas territories in 1946 was, four years later, to lead to the establishment of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind (RCSB), now called Sight Savers International. He was its dynamic Director until 1983. When he retired from that, he promptly set up the Impact Foundation, an initiative that stemmed from a famous presentation he had been invited to make to the UN General Assembly, in New York, calling for the prevention of all avoidable disability. The ensuing programme now affects upwards of 450 million people. So, for the second time, he was to grasp the opportunity to give his leadership capacity full rein, along with his boundless energy and bent for innovation.

At the RCSB he formed organisations for training the blind and for the prevention of blindness in over 30 Commonwealth countries, overseeing the initial plans himself in situ, and with regular follow-up visits, which meant travelling 50,000 miles a year or more, every year. He believed it essential to speak directly to those involved in moving on the work, whether it was a head of government, or the RCSB's local partners, or a village elder - or the Chancellor of the Guild of Blind Beggars in the city of Kano, Nigeria.

He aimed always to encourage the local organisation in every territory to match, and then to surpass, by four times, the funding provided from Britain, which in turn released money for other areas. This, he believed most fervently, also engendered a spirit of partnership, and encouraged pride in local achievement.

One of his most spectacular victories has been in the now virtual elimination of "river blindness", John Wilson's charity-donor-friendly name for the unmemorable ocular onchocerciasis spread by the similium fly, a condition rife in northern Africa in the 1950s, but in the main controllable by the drug Mectizan. In the seven countries most afflicted by river blindness at the start of the programme, 11 million children have since been born with sight as a normal expectation.

In India he pioneered village eye-camps to treat cataract blindness, cheaply and effectively, with small travelling medical teams performing a hundred operations a day, many miles distant from any hospital facility. This continuing programme is now accounting for 200,000 operations a year.

In 1972, Wilson's instant intervention helped preserve the sight of several hundred thousand babies suffering from xerophthalmia (blinding malnutrition), a totally avoidable affliction when treated with vitamin A tablets - so easy to distribute, say, in the English home counties, but involving massive problems in logistics in the outer wastes of Bangladesh where the outbreak was uncovered.

Because cataract was proved to be the largest cause of blindness in the world, in 1979 Wilson persuaded the World Health Organisation to recognise paramedic cataract surgeons, which provided for hugely increased numbers of cataract operations in overseas areas suffering an acute shortage of professional eye surgeons. This initiative possibly ranks top among his many revolutionary achievements.

At Impact he pioneered again with a hospital train, the Lifeline Express, that criss-crosses the Indian railroad system, providing surgical and medical aid in remote areas, serving patients with sight, hearing and mobility problems. The train has already treated nearly a quarter of a million patients, and has acted as a model for the creation of hospital trains in China and Zimbabwe. Wilson's matching concept, the Riverboat Hospital, in Bangladesh, he launched himself in May this year, still maintaining his hands-on involvement, as he was to do again on a Far East tour completed two weeks before his death.

At one border check, he told me, an officious immigration officer had complained that he had failed to fill in a form. "But I'm blind," Wilson replied. "In that case you have to fill in two forms," said the other man - a story that went straight into the Wilson "they are only human" file.

So much of John Wilson's work endures, and far more is yet to fructify. This saintly figure, so effacing when it came to promoting himself, was disarmingly frank when pressing for the needs of others. One of the most poignant speeches he ever made was in 1995 at the UN Weaponry Review Conference, in Vienna, where he crusaded, with magnificent effect, to have the laser personnel gun banned - a weapon which he said was abhorrent to the conscience of humanity.

He ended his speech with: "There are 40 million of us blind people in this world. Surely, Mr President, that is enough?"

John Foster Wilson, campaigner for the blind: born Nottingham 20 January 1919; Assistant Secretary, Royal National Institute for the Blind 1941- 49; founder, Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind 1950, Director 1950- 83; OBE 1955, CBE 1965; President, International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness 1974-83; Kt 1975; founder, Impact 1983, Chairman, International Council 1991-99; married 1944 Jean McDermid (two daughters); died Roedean, East Sussex 24 November 1999.