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Biographical entry Watson, Peter Gordon (1930 - 2017)

MB BChir Cambridge 1956; MRCS LRCP 1956; DO 1960; FRCS 1963; FCOphth 1988; Hon FRCOphth 1995.

30 April 1930
Newport, Monmouthshire
31 January 2017


In many countries, less than 30 years ago it was possible to become a senior ophthalmologist, even a professor, without ever having passed a postgraduate examination in the specialty. Peter Watson, a consultant ophthalmologist at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, and Moorfields in London, changed all that almost single-handedly by recognising the need for comparative international standards in ophthalmic training. As a member of the International Council of Ophthalmology (ICO), he was able to set up the ICO's international assessment test, the only worldwide medical specialty examination, harvesting questions (and answers) from many of his colleagues. This exam has proved popular and effective in enhancing global standards in ophthalmology and has already been taken by over 22,000 candidates.

Peter Gordon Watson was born on 30 April 1930 in Newport, Monmouth, where his father, Ralph, a doctor and his mother, Renée née Smith, a nurse (and artist), jointly ran a free mobile medical clinic during the Depression. He was awarded an exhibition scholarship to the Leys School, Cambridge and, after National Service as a subaltern in the Royal Horse Artillery, an experience which neither he nor his commanding officer found particularly agreeable, he read natural sciences at Queens' College, Cambridge, and then moved to University College Hospital, where he qualified in 1956.

After a variety of junior posts, he joined the training rotation at the City Road branch of Moorfields Eye Hospital in 1960 and obviously made his mark, rising to be a senior lecturer in the very prestigious professorial unit run by Barrie Jones and then, in 1965, becoming a consultant ophthalmologist to Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge. With the encouragement of Barrie Jones, who was an important influence in his career, he established the scleritis clinic at Moorfields and was appointed to its consultant staff in 1970.

These two appointments were the basis for a lifetime of clinical excellence, teaching and research. His interests were wide ranging and included glaucoma, scleritis and inflammatory eye disease, corneal graft rejection, trachoma, amblyopia, biochemistry and metabolism, and even Galileo's eye problems. But it is for his work on scleritis and inflammatory eye disease that Peter is mainly known. His book The sclera and systemic disorders (Philadelphia, London, W B Saunders, 1976) is into its third edition and continues to be widely regarded as the authority on the subject.

Glaucoma was another early major interest. Before 1970, variations of full thickness filtration surgery were the mainstay of the surgical treatment of the disease. Recognising their unreliable results and frequent complications, he collaborated with John Cairns at Addenbrooke's to develop the operation of trabeculectomy and, largely thanks to Peter's research, publications and teaching, it became the standard procedure for glaucoma and continues to be so today.

His clinical work and research produced numerous publications; seven books, 18 chapters, 168 papers (of which he was first author of 89). Nor did retirement from the NHS slow him down - just the opposite as it allowed him to travel extensively, teaching and meeting with colleagues around the world, and in 1995 he took on the post of Böerhaave professor at the University of Leiden and spent the next six years commuting to and from the Netherlands.

Perhaps inspired by his parents' activities during the 1930s, Peter devoted much energy and enthusiasm during his career to overseas charitable work, which enabled him to pursue a variety of research initiatives. These included projects in Labrador and Newfoundland, India, Egypt and Pakistan and, in 1992, he became the deputy hospitaller for the Order of St John of Jerusalem. But despite his research interests and the commitments of a consultant appointment in a busy teaching hospital, he found time to be involved in the wider interests of UK ophthalmology, serving on the council of the Ophthalmological Society of the United Kingdom until it was disbanded in 1987 and as one of the founders of the College of Ophthalmologists. He was on its council from its inception until 1995 and became a senior vice president, and chaired the scientific committee and the staffing and facilities committee. He was awarded an honorary fellowship of the college in 1995.

He served on the council of the Oxford Ophthalmological Congress, becoming the master from 1983 to 1984, and was editor of Eye from 1986 to 1993. Always a competitor and reflecting his 'light blue' allegiance, Peter felt that just as Oxford had its own ophthalmological congress it seemed only right that Cambridge should hold something similar - an anomaly that he addressed by founding the Cambridge Ophthalmological Symposium in 1970. For many years, he was the organiser and editorial secretary of this annual meeting, which soon became one of the most important events in the ophthalmic calendar.

Peter was a great supporter of international ophthalmology and served on the council of the International Council of Ophthalmology from 1992 to 2009, becoming the president of the Academia Ophthalmologica Internationalis, the most senior academic organisation in ophthalmology. Not surprisingly, his authority and achievements brought him international acclaim and awards, amongst them the Doyne medal lecture (in 1982), the Duke-Elder international gold medal of the International Council of Ophthalmology (in 2002) and the Jules François international research gold medal (in 2014).

Always an enterprising and inquisitive individual, despite a very busy peripatetic academic life giving numerous lectures (during which he rarely kept to the script), Peter found time to sail, to paint and to play tennis, as well as having many other interests, which he would share with all around him, both family and colleagues. His often diffident manner concealed a strong will and he was a good teacher, with a positive influence on the careers of a generation of young eye doctors who were trained by him. He was one of the founders of the Moorfields Alumni Association (now the Moorfields Association), serving as its honorary president from 2005 to 2009, and in 2015 he was presented with its lifetime achievement award in recognition of his contribution to ophthalmology and his name was added to the honours board, the logo for which he had designed and painted himself.

His death on 31 January 2017 at the age of 86 from prostate cancer robbed the ophthalmic world of one of the giants in the specialty, both on a national and international stage, who made significant contributions in several different areas of interest and left a legacy that will be passed on.

He was survived by his wife Ann, a teacher whom he married in 1955, and his three sons, one of whom became a doctor, and two daughters, together with numerous grandchildren.

Timothy ffytche

Sources used to compile this entry: [Royal College of Ophthalmologists, personal knowledge and information from Keith Martin, David Boase, Richard Keeler and other colleagues; BMJ 2017 357 1603 - accessed 9 June 2017; Moorfields eye Hospital - accessed 9 June 2017; Academia Opthalmologica Internationalis - accessed 9 June 2017; The Royal College of Ophthalmologists A short tribute to Peter Watson, 1930-2017 - accessed 9 June 2017].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England