History of the Aberdeen Eye Department

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Eye surgery was amongst the earliest operations performed at the Infirmary after it opened in 1742 at Woolmanhill. Woolmanhill had been chosen as the site of the new hospital because of the "goodness of the air in that place". It had been a site for sellers of wool and under the hill there ran a spring of water called the Well of Spa. The water was said to have been of medicinal qualities and effective in many diseases of the mouth, stomach, liver, kidneys and bladder.

Dr Alexander Rose, another physician in the town and who had been one of the Infirmary’s first subscribers, performed cataract surgery rather than Dr Gordon who had actually been the physician appointed to the Hospital. Both had been to Leyden, the leading medical centre of the day. Cataract surgery was done by inserting a needle into the anterior chamber (the front of the eye) and dislocating the opaque lens backwards into the vitreous cavity (the back of the eye behind the pupil)- couching. The immediate effect was dramatic but complications meant that the long-term outlook was poor.  The first recorded couching was performed in June 1743 on a blind woman from the parish of Logie Mar (Logie Coldstone). A month later the woman had recovered her sight and was fit enough to leave the "House".

By the turn of the century the idea of specialising in one type of disease was increasingly favoured and many specialist hospitals were founded throughout Britain. An infirmary for eye diseases was created in London in 1816 and the Glasgow Eye Infirmary began in 1824

The Aberdeen Eye Institution was first mentioned in the Journal of the "Honourable the County Club" of Aberdeen. This club flourished from 1718 to 1876 and appeared to be mainly for social intercourse among its distinguished members. At their annual meeting of 5th December 1828, "the Club agree to patronise the intended Ophthalmic Institution, in consequence of an application subscribed by Drs Skene, Moir, French and Dyce". On 6th March 1829, "on the motion of Mr A. Bannerman, the club authorised the Secretary to pay the sum of Twenty-one pounds in aid of the Funds of the Ophthalmic Institution, patronised and approved of by the Club at their last meeting".

Dr Cadenhead (1799-1862) was the first consultant in charge having previously studied in London under Dr Guthrie of Charing Cross Hospital. His hour of attendance was fixed at 2.30 pm three times a week and he provided his services free. Cadenhead did not receive any salary until 1847 when he was voted an annual salary of 10 guineas. The physicians at this time received 45, the house surgeon 26 5/- and the apothecary 30.

Between 1829 and 1938 the institution treated 211,220 new eye cases with a yearly average of 5,711 news and 18,878 returns. 3,074 operations a year were performed.


Eventually it was decided that the Institution was not a suitable place to perform delicate operations and eight dedicated in-patient beds were created in 1838 at the Royal Infirmary, which was, then at Woolmanhill. This move was not without opposition. The three physicians and surgeon of the Infirmary when asked for their opinion replied:

"We do not consider it necessary to separate cases of Ophthalmic disease from other Medical or Surgical cases… anymore than it would be necessary to separate Cutaneous diseases, diseases of the Ear, or any other diseases not infectious; and we are not aware that such separation is enforced in any General Hospital."

In 1936 the surgical beds moved from Woolmanhill to ward 13, Foresterhill. They then moved again to wards 9,10 and part of 11, Woodend Hospital to return to Foresterhill on 14th October 1989. In the 1990s the surgical beds moved from the spacious surroundings of wards 17/18 to its present site, ward 30.


Major causes of concern were the large numbers of hopeless cases not only in adults but more especially as the result of untreated cases of ophthalmia in newborn babies. Many of these cases "might have been easily cured had early application been made".

The Eye Institution was located next to the granite cutting and engineering yards of the City. Dr Edgar Collis, Medical Inspector of Factories, as the result of an enquiry with regard to the frequency of eye injuries in granite cutters, gave evidence in February, 1912, before the Royal Commission on metalliferous mines and quarries to the effect that:

1) There were 1700 stonecutters in Aberdeen and district.

2) One out of every two receives medical aid for eye injuries every year.

3) Out of a total 809 eye injuries to stonecutters in Aberdeen during one year, 645 were treated at the Eye Institution.


The Institution (out-patient department) moved several times in its history. Initially it was situated at the south end of Belmont Street.

South End of Belmont Street 1829-1830
15 Guestrow 1831
18 Lodge Walk 1832-1834
26 Castle Street 1835-1853
36 Crown Court 1854-1863
60 St Nicholas Street 1864-1871
*General Dispensary, Guestrow 1871-1895
144 King Street 1895-1902
42 King Street 1903-1958

*General Dispensary, Vaccine and Lying-in Institution gave free medical advice and treatment to all that required it, as well as for patients at home who were too ill to attend. Founded in 1823, the National Health Service made it redundant in 1948.


Eye Institution and Infirmary Eye Department Senior Doctors

Eye Institution 1829  Eye Institution Notes Infirmary 1742
John Cadenhead (1799-1862) 1829-1862 Unpaid till 1847. Performed first cataract operation in Aberdeen  
James Reissberg Wolfe (1824-1904) 1863-1868 Glasgow University graduate. Senior Surgeon on Garibaldi’s staff and Inspector of Military Hospitals in the Italian Army. Left to found his own Ophthalmic Institute in Glasgow giving free treatment to the poor.  
A. Dyce Davidson (1846-86) 1869-1886 The election of Dr Ogston to the post of ophthalmic surgeon at the Infirmary in 1868 deprived him of his in-patient beds and he set up a bed for this purpose at the Institution. First chloroformist at Royal Infirmary 1871-85. "The two-fold responsibility of at once performing the various delicate operations practised on the eye and also a t the same time administering the chloroform to the patient are too much for one man". Professor of Materia Medica from 1878 producing with Dr Alexander Harvey "A Syllabus of Materia Medica". Died aged 44 whilst lecturing to medical students. Memorial medal in the entrance hall of the 1936 building at Foresterhill. Sir Alexander Ogston 1868-1870

Sir Alexander Ogston (son of Professor Frances Ogston) ran the eye dispensary in Castle Street from 1866. In 1868 he was appointed ophthalmic surgeon to the Royal Infirmary and in 1869 was appointed lecturer in practical ophthalmology. In 1870 he began his career in general surgery eventually being appointed to the Regius chair of surgery, which he occupied from 1802 to1909. He famously promoted Lister’s antiseptic technique for surgical operations and more importantly proved that the micro-organisms found in wound abscesses were the actual source of the problem-"Report on micro-organisms in surgical diseases" BMJ 12th march 1881. He named this micro-organism Staphylococcus.

J. Mackenzie Davidson (1868-1919) 1887-1896 Resigned from Infirmary, but not Eye Institution in 1894. In 1895 moved from Dispensary into more spacious premises with in-patient beds. Room vacated in Dispensary used by Usher to see out-patients.

Made a pilgrimage to Wurzburg to see Roentgen. Left to take charge of the Roentgen Ray departments at the Royal London Ophthalmic and Charing Cross Hospitals. Knighted 1912. President Roentgen society 1912. Original foreign body eye localiser and electrical circuit breaker housed in the Marischal museum.

A new surgical block was created at the Infirmary and the Eye department was allocated small male, female, and isolation wards (in the area now occupied by the Diabetic Clinic at Woolmanhill) with a waiting room, admission room and dark room below.

 Charles Howard Usher 1894-1926

A medallion plaque commerates his life and is to be found in the main entrance of the original Infirmary buildings at Foresterhill. He was a nephew of Usher the brewing benefactor of Edinburgh University. He studied under Nettleship and was the Nettleship winner, Bowman Lecturer and President of the Ophthalmological Society of the United Kingdom. On his retiral the eye wards were renamed in his honour.

W. Clark Souter 1907

Briefly in charge whilst Usher convalescing on a year long round-the-world cruise. Appointed Assistant Ophthalmic Surgeon on Usher’s return

Dr Harold Edgar Smith was appointed as a second Assistant appointed in 1914.

WWI curtailed work of dept with all 3 surgeons mobilised

A. Rudolf Galloway (1864-1939) 1897-1938 Assistant anaesthetist and medical electrician (radiologist) 1896-7.

Saw 3,000 cases a year. Claimed to have performed first enucleation under local anaesthetic in this country.

Called up in 1915 to the 1st Scottish General Hospital. Able to continue his duties. Miss Boyd, Matron, dealt with minor cases leaving him to deal with the more serious cases.

1927 appointed Lecturer in Ophthalmology at the University.

W. Clark Souter (1880-1959) 1938-1945 Was Ship’s surgeon on the Terra nova, which went to relieve Captain Scott’s expedition in 1903-4. Believed that one should be a doctor first and an ophthalmologist second. Trained at Moorfields hospital, London. World War II delayed his retirement. Tended to keep most interesting cases for himself leading to numerous complaints from the staff and despite numerous interventions from the Board the situation did not improve. This culminated in the resignation of Smith in 1937.

 Beatrix Law was appointed as Junior Assistant Ophthalmic Surgeon in 1930.

 In 1936 the Infirmary moved to Foresterhill with out-patients continuing at Woolmanhill

Beatrx B. Law (1899-1987) 1946-1961 Oxford graduate. Institution incorporated into the National Health Service in 1948. Under the NHS the North Eastern Regional Hospital Board ran both the Aberdeen Eye Institution and Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, and the treatment of eye disease was henceforth organised on a regional rather than institutional basis. Out-patients at King Street finally closed in 1958 leaving Woolmanhill as the single out-patient department.
Charles Cockburn (1909-1992) 1961-1973 Son of a farmer in Rhynie. Performed first corneal graft in Aberdeen on 4th April 1950.
WS Milne 1974-1977  
Fiona M. Bennett 1977-1982  
PK Ray 1983-1986  

According to Levack and Dudley C.H. Usher (1865-1942) succeeded McKenzie Davidson although his name is not mentioned in David Rorie’s book where the chapter on the Eye Institution was authored by A. Rudolf Galloway! Levack and Dudley state that Usher was in charge until he retired in 1926. A medallion plaque commerates his life and is to be found in the main entrance of the original Infirmary buildings at Foresterhill. He was a nephew of Usher the brewing benefactor of Edinburgh University. He studied under Nettleship and was the Nettleship winner, Bowman lecturer and president of the Ophthalmological Society of the United Kingdom

The post of Head of Service now rotates between the consultants every 3 years on a "voluntary" basis.


Cadenhead performed the first cataract operation as opposed to couching in Aberdeen. Other notable consultants include McKenzie Davidson who attained worldwide recognition for a new method of X-ray localisation of foreign bodies. He left Aberdeen in 1897 for London turning his full attention to radiology becoming Britain’s leading radiologist of the day.

Sir Alexander Ogston (son of Professor Frances Ogston) ran the eye dispensary in Castle Street from 1866. In 1868 he was appointed ophthalmic surgeon to the Royal Infirmary and in 1869 was appointed lecturer in practical ophthalmology. In 1870 he began his career in general surgery eventually being appointed to the Regius chair of surgery, which he occupied from 1802 to1909. He famously promoted Lister’s antiseptic technique for surgical operations and more importantly proved that the micro-organisms found in wound abscesses were the actual source of the problem-"Report on micro-organisms in surgical diseases" BMJ 12th march 1881. He named this micro-organism Staphylococcus.


University Department

In 1976 Charles Cockburn donated a sum of money towards the establishment of a university chair in ophthalmology but this was insufficient on its own. In 1983 Sir Hugh Fraser donated a large sum of money that enabled the chair to become a reality. He asked that the department be named after his grandparents, Sir Andrew and Lady Lewis.

The chair was named the Cockburn chair. A further substantial grant was obtained from the Frost foundation, through Sir Hugh Miller, an Aberdeen graduate (1937), who was surgeon oculist to Her Majesty the Queen 1974-80

In 1984 John V Forrester became the first professor of ophthalmology in Aberdeen. His department has had considerable success and indeed two of his trainees have been appointed to substantive chairs in their own rights.


Andrew Jopp Lewis was a son of John Lewis, founder of the boat building and marine engineering firm of John Lewis and Sons. In 1907, on the death of his Father he took over the business supplying drifter engines to the herring fleets and enlarged the firm’s own trawling fleet.

In 1920 the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Aberdeen met with various public bodies to discuss the need for additional hospital accommodation. This led to the Joint Hospitals Scheme whereby hospital related university departments and their common services would be located on one site. The Town Council’s decision to create a general hospital at Woodend, against the wishes of the other members of the Joint Hospitals Scheme almost ended the Scheme. By 1926, however, the Royal Aberdeen Hospital for Sick Children was already building at Foresterhill but the other parties were reluctant to proceed.

In 1924 Sir Andrew was elected to the Board of Directors and in 1925 he became Provost. He managed to raise over 100,000 without a public appeal. This success was such to warrant the Board to recommend to the managers to proceed with the scheme and purchase their share of the Foresterhill site. The appeal went public with a target of 400,00. The Prince of Wales laid the Foundation Stone of the new hospital in August 1928.

By January 1929 Lord Provost Lewis’s fund was less than 100,000 pounds short of its target. The Press and Journal published a daily graph of how contributions were mounting up with a smiling depiction of his face when money flowed in and a scowling one when efforts flagged. In early April the target was surpassed, however, it took another seven years and a further 100,000 before the Duke of York could open a "Mecca of healing and medical learning (Edward VIII was too busy meeting Mrs Wallis Simpson at Aberdeen Railway station to attend). When Sir Andrew died in 1952 the newspaper headlines read simply:

"RAISED 407,000 FOR INFIRMARY".