Sir Harold Ridley endured a lifelong struggle to gain acceptance for his invention of the intraocular lens which is now recognised as one of the most important medical advances of the 20th century. Sir Harold's work was eventually recognised when he was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen at the age of 93.
Sir Harold Ridley came under fierce scrutiny during the 1940s to the 1960s when many of his contemporaries considered his approach to eye surgery to be cavalier and even unethical. They strongly believed that eye surgeons should "never put objects into the eye".
In 1938 Sir Harold was appointed a consultant surgeon at Moorfields Hospital in London. During the Second World War he was appointed to the Emergency Medical Services based at Guildford in order to treat injured servicemen, particularly from the Royal Air Force. He noted that fragments of Perspex from cockpit canopies that had become embedded in the eye did not produce any adverse reaction and thus speculated on the possibility of making lenses out of similar material.
In 1941 Sir Harold was called up in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to Ghana and later Burma. During these postings he gave careful thought to the concept of an artificial lens that could replace the natural cataracted lens. On his repatriation to the UK in 1945, he designed a lens in perspex that he had manufactured by Rayners Optical Company and in doing so ensured that their work should be "for the greater benefit of medical science".
On November 29, 1949, and by then also having been appointed a consultant surgeon at St Thomas's Hospital, London, Sir Harold performed the first intraocular lens implant at St Thomas's Hospital in London. The cataract surgery was undertaken behind locked doors and kept secret to ensure its efficacy until 1951 when Ridley announced his procedure at the Oxford Ophthalmic Congress. His presentation on intraocular lens surgery was opposed by many in the opthalmic establishment who strongly believed objects should not be placed into the eye, and that the remit of an eye surgeon was purely to remove objects from the eye.
As a result, Ridley was barely recognised for his pioneering achievement for much of the remainder of his professional career. However, eventually, aged 80, Nicholas Harold Lloyd Ridley was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (1986). Fourteen years later, at 93 years of age, he was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen in recognition of his cure for cataracts.
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