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Biographical entry Hopkins, Harold Horace (1918 - 1994)

Hon FRCS 1980; BSc Leicester 1939; PhD London 1945; DSc 1956; FRS 1973; Hon MD Munich 1980; Hon DSc Bristol 1980; Hon DSc Liverpool 1982; Hon DSc Reading 1986; Hon FRCP 1984.

6 December 1918
22 October 1994


Harold Hopkins, who was to be awarded the Honorary FRCS for his revolutionary innovations in the field of medical optical instrumentation, was born in Leicester on 6 December 1918, where his father, William Ernest, worked for a small baker. His mother was Ellen Teresa, née Hewitt. He gained a scholarship to the Gateway School and another to Leicester University where he read physics and graduated BSc in 1939. At the outbreak of war he was directed to work in the optics company Taylor, Taylor and Hobson and apart from six months' military service (due to a clerical error) he was to work in the industry until 1947. As a wartime concession he was allowed to take his PhD outside the University and was awarded the degree in London in 1945, followed later by a DSc in 1952.

In 1947 he was appointed a research fellow in Imperial College, but soon rose to lecturer and then reader before gaining a new Chair of Applied Optics in Reading University in 1967. During this time he made a number of advances in theoretical optics, as well as devising the zoom lens but his first interest in medical instruments came in 1950 after a chance meeting with Dr Gainsborough, gastroenterologist at St George's. The need for a flexible endoscope was readily apparent and with a grant from the Royal Society he started work on the use of coherent glass fibre bundles for transmitting the visual image. His innovative system was published in Nature in 1954. His improvements in the rigid endoscopes were stimulated by a contact with J G Gow FRCS, a Liverpool urologist who was struggling to obtain colour photographs through cystoscopes in which neither the illumination nor the image quality were adequate. Hopkins devised the rod lens system which greatly enhanced the image and when coupled with light transmitted from an external source via the glass fibre bundles produced an instrument which transformed the possibilities of endoscopic surgery. Unhappily British instrument makers declined to take up these inventions, which were then seized upon by Karl Storz in Germany, whose firm was soon the leading manufacturer of endoscopic instruments.

Hopkins further devised a prism system with a side arm allowing a second observer to get as good a view as the operator, a great help in teaching. Television cameras were soon added and these were the first steps in the revolutionary change which has led minimally invasive surgery to displace open operation in many fields. For Hopkins, however, these developments represented only a part of his scientific activity, and when he was awarded the FRS in 1973 medical instrumentation was not even mentioned. He has nevertheless been honoured by many branches of our profession: an honorary Fellow of the British Association of Urological Surgeons with the St Peter's Medal in 1974, Honorary FRCS and Lister Orator and Medallist in the Royal College of Surgeons 1990; Honorary Fellow and Gold Medallist 1994 of the Royal Society of Medicine. He received honorary doctorates from a number of universities.

Harold Hopkins was a man of diverse talents, a linguist with a facility in several languages (lecturing freely in French and German), a competent musician, a carpenter, an inspiring teacher and the possessor of a happy, sometimes mischievous, sense of humour. He shared his love of sailing with his wife Christine, née Ridsdale, whom he married in 1950, and she combined raising a family with a successful career as an artist. He died from metastatic carcinoma of the prostate on 22 October 1994, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 3 November 1994].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England