Oliver Foot: President of Orbis International, the world's only flying eye hospital

As president of Orbis International, the flying eye hospital, Oliver Foot was responsible for saving millions of people worldwide from blindness, most of them in the developing world. To the charity he brought not only indomitable energy and charismatic and witty leadership, but fund-raising skills that, over the years, brought Orbis more than $200m in funding. He was a lifelong socialist and humanitarian, and a member of an impeccably left-wing aristocratic family; his uncle was the Labour leader Michael Foot. His other great passion was Jamaica, the country of his birth, an island he championed throughout his life and that, according to his wife Gail, "held his soul and heart".

The son of the diplomat Hugh Foot (later Lord Caradon), Oliver was born in Kingston in 1946 where his father was High Commissioner. Growing up with there his brothers Paul – later the celebrated journalist – and Benjamin, in the considerable splendour of King's House, his father's official residence, Foot would prefer to spend time with the sons of the gardener; as a small child he would filch money from his parents' pockets to give to the poor at the King's House gates.

From an early age he was accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the world's elite. He would tell of how, as a young boy, he had sat opposite Queen Elizabeth at dinner; she had smiled conspiratorially at him when she observed him surreptitiously removing food from his mouth and placing it in his napkin. When, years later, they met again at an official engagement, Her Majesty reminded him, "We share a secret, don't we, Oliver?"

In the tradition of his family, Foot attended the distinguished Quaker school Leighton Park, in Reading. He did not flourish academically and left with – as he put it – "half an O-level". He found himself, however, when he studied acting at Goddard College in Vermont in the United States. He also found his first wife, Nancy, a blonde surfer girl whom he met at a rally against the Vietnam war, an event that accorded with the semi-hippie he had become. Returning with Foot to England to his family home, Nancy was surprised to discover that it was a castle in Cornwall.

There, at Trematon Castle, near Saltash, Oliver and Nancy founded the Footsbarn Theatre, a non-profit, grassroots, travelling-theatre company that revived the Cornish legends, Shakespeare and modern theatre. The group made their own costumes, wrote original works and did their own choreography and music. However, as the success of Footsbarn grew, Foot increasingly indulged himself with stimulants. Finally he fell on his uppers, and lived a life that could have come from the script of Withnail and I, at times so cold that he and his flatmate would take it in turns to sit on the radiator.

His life of indulgence effectively came to an end after he was caught stealing a pair of jeans from a shop: "Peer in hot pants drama" read the headline in the News of the World. At the subsequent trial, his father stood up for his son, blaming himself.

After joining Alcoholics Anonymous, and embracing Christianity, Foot went through a remarkable transformation. After several jobs in public relations, he joined the fledgling Orbis International in New York in 1982, becoming its executive director, and then president.

Orbis had converted the cabin of a DC8 into an eye surgery, and travelled to the world's impoverished nations, teaching local ophthalmologists the latest sight-saving procedures. "I was astonished how Oliver had changed," said Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, who had first known him in Jamaica. "It was during this period that he really reminded me of his father: he worked tirelessly on raising money for Orbis, which was an amazing project. He had all his father's diplomatic skills when it came to opening up new countries for Orbis."

After exhausting himself raising funds for a larger plane – he appeared in a television documentary clearly frazzled – Foot downgraded his role with Orbis in 1995 and joined Air Jamaica. He had already bought a small coffee plantation on the island, and now he became a roving ambassador for the place he regarded as his true home. "His love for Jamaica was deep," said Butch Stewart, who at the time ran the airline. "Wherever he travelled, he proselytised incessantly for the country."

Although Jamaica offered opportunities for a sumptuous lifestyle, Foot was also taken with the country's darker downside. "He could mix equally with aristocrats, prostitutes, drug addicts and thieves," said Gail. After joining Orbis, Foot had become friends with Fidel Castro and each of the Bush presidents, a measure of his social mobility.

In 2004 he was reunited full-time with Orbis as its president, and last November travelled to Palestine – for long a cause of his father's – to put together a forthcoming visit from the charity.

Chris Salewicz

Oliver Isaac Foot, charity executive: born Kingston, Jamaica 19 September 1946; executive director, Orbis International 1982-87, president 1987-95, 2004-08; married 1970 Nancy Bruce (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1975), 2005 Gail Kirpichnikov; died London 6 February 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions