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HomemistoryMaking a Difference

Making a Difference

Most eye care professionals in Australia and many more worldwide, would know the name Brien Holden. If you haven’t heard of Professor Brien Holden chances are, you’ve heard of the many organisations he has founded and fostered.

This list includes leading vision correction, eye health, and international research and educational organisations.Brien’s contributions to the field of eye care has now been recognised by the Board of the Institute for Eye Research, with the renaming (last month) of that organisation to the ‘Brien Holden Vision Institute’. The Institute will continue Brien’s pioneering work in research and education and his efforts to make a difference.

A glance through Brien Holden’s résumé will give you an idea of his drive and commitment, but perhaps more telling are the awards that demonstrate how he is viewed by the global eye care and research communities and beyond. Over the course of his career, Brien has received 29 national and international awards. This list highlights Professor Brien Holden’s achievements and the influence he has had in so many areas of eye care.

Contact Lenses

Brien’s first sphere of specialisation was in contact lenses. In the late 60s, whilst undertaking his PhD, interest in contact lenses was on the increase following the development of comfortable soft lenses. Upon completing his doctorate at the City University in London in 1971, Brien returned to Australia to the University of New South Wales and began to develop a research group in this rapidly growing field.

Brien’s initial goal of understanding contact lenses expanded to take in every aspect of the development, material properties, lens design, performance and effects of a wide range of ocular devices, procedures and solutions

At the time, little was known about what was needed in lenses to maintain eye health. Brien’s initial goal of understanding contact lenses expanded to take in every aspect of the development, material properties, lens design, performance and effects of a wide range of ocular devices, procedures and solutions.

In what has become his trademark style, Brien’s commitment and enthusiasm attracted other researchers to work with him in this area. Beginning in 1973 with just three researchers, by 1976 the group had grown to over 30 which led to the establishment of the Cornea and Contact Lens Research Unit (CCLRU) at the University of New South Wales. The organisation made significant contributions to the world of contact lenses, for example understanding the eye’s needs, developing toric soft contact lenses and setting the agenda for clinical care of contact lens wearers.

Through the establishment of the Institute for Eye Research in 1985, the Cooperative Research Centre for Eye Research and Technology (CRCERT) in 1991 and the Vision Cooperative Research Centre (Vision CRC) in 2003, Brien has acted as a driving force behind the development of a number of lens products. Most notably, the creation of the third generation of soft lenses to correct astigmatism and as a principle contributor to the development of the breakthrough highly oxygen permeable silicone hydrogel lenses with Ciba Vision, which have revolutionised the contact lens market.


The widespread use of low oxygen permeable extended wear lenses throughout Asia in the 1980s strongly highlighted the need to raise the standard of contact lens education throughout the world to make contact lens wear safer. Raising sponsorship from Bausch & Lomb, Brien Holden, with colleagues at the CCLRU, instigated the Asia Pacific Contact Lens Education Program (APCLEP), which targeted contact lens practitioners in many developing countries.

He also championed the idea of sustainable education. Targeting educators so that knowledge would be passed on to the next generation of practitioners, APCLEP taught contact lens educators as well as practitioners. Brien also helped to establish the International Association of Contact Lens Educators (IACLE), which developed educational infrastructure and resources specifically targeting hundreds of contact lens educators throughout the world. IACLE programmes now exist in over 60 countries.

In 1997, Brien was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his outstanding contributions to eye care research and education. In nominating Brien for the medal, Professor Dan O’Leary said, “Brien has been instrumental in establishing an extensive programme of education for eye care practitioners throughout the world, especially in developing countries. Over 10,000 practitioners in the Asia Pacific region alone have been reached by education programmes run by CCLRU and CRCERT.”

Global and Indigenous Eye Care

In 1965, pursuing postgraduate education, Brien travelled to England by boat with his young wife Yvonne. It was a memorable trip. En route, port stops in then poverty stricken locations like Sri Lanka and New Guinea, created in Brien a life-long passion for helping those in need.

He has since worked tirelessly to improve eye care and vision correction throughout the world. As co-founder of the International Centre for Eyecare Education (ICEE), he established eye care services and self-sustaining education and spectacle distribution programmes which continue to be extended to remote Australia and across the developing world.

In the early stages of the global initiative, Vision 2020: The Right to Sight movement, Brien’s colleagues Dr. Nag Rao and Professor Hugh Taylor argued strongly that refractive error should be recognised as a major target for the prevention of blindness and impaired vision. Brien took up the cause and their efforts were rewarded by the recognition of uncorrected refractive error by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the main cause of preventable blindness and impaired vision. This is now a key theme for Vision 2020. As Chair of both the WHO’s Refractive Error Working Group and the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness, Brien and his colleagues developed both the epidemiological data on the size of the problem and a global strategic plan for the elimination of uncorrected refractive error.

Brien’s commitment to this issue saw him address the National Press Club in 2005, articulating a simple philosophy about addressing a problem that impacts on the health, quality of life, education and economic opportunities of many. “The enormous need for vision correction is both an incredible opportunity and an outstanding obligation,” he said.

He also visited another theme that has been a defining feature of his professional life – the myriad benefits of collaborating with others. “The solution to both Australian and global eye care problems lies in the commitment to eliminate the problem and the commitment to make the essential partnerships work,” he added.

Brien rates his major achievement as developing successful collaborative efforts with colleagues from around the world in all eye care disciplines. “One of my best moves was recruiting Brian Layland to ICEE. What Brian has achieved in the recognition and service of optometry to community controlled eye care for Aboriginal people all over Australia, but especially in New South Wales and the Northern Territory, is amazing”, he said.

“The long friendship I had with my ophthalmological, sailing and research mate Antti Vannas from Finland, opened up the world of ophthalmology research to me and many others. And when Nag Rao, perhaps the greatest combination of researcher and humanitarian in eye care, named his Research Laboratories at the LV Prasad Eye Institute after me, I was humbled.” The core of all these achievements according to Brien, is the people he works with. “An extremely talented and hard working group of colleagues and friends”, he said.


Contact Lenses


The Ruben Gold Medal from the International Society for Contact Lens Research for outstanding contributions to contact lens research


The Glenn A Fry Award from the American Academy of Optometry in recognition of outstanding and exemplary contributions to research in optometry


The Kenneth W Bell Medal from the Contact Lens Society of Australia, in recognition of his contribution to corneal and contact lens research education in Australia and internationally 1994: Honorary Doctor of Science, honoris causa, from the State University of New York for outstanding contributions to eye research and education



Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for outstanding contributions to eye care research and education


British Contact Lens Association Medal for outstanding contributions to contact lens research and education


Honorary Doctor of Science from Pennsylvania College of Optometry for outstanding contributions to science and education



Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science from The City University London for his distinguished contribution to Optometry and Visual Science


Scientia Professorship, University of New South Wales for outstanding research performance


Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Durban- Westville, South Africa for his work in eliminating uncorrected refractive error and advancing international optometry

Global and Indigenous Eye care


Special Recognition Award Medal from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology

2003: Dr Joseph Dallos Award from the Contact Lens Manufacturers Association, for outstanding contribution to the development and advancement of the contact lens industry and for service to humanity


Inaugural International Award from the American Academy of Optometry, for an individual or organisations whose direct efforts and contributions have resulted in unquestionably significant and extraordinary advances in optometry and eye care internationally



Inducted into the USA National Optometry Hall of Fame, which recognises persons whose lifetime achievements have advanced the profession of optometry


Honorary Fellowship from the College of Optometrists (UK) in recognition of the outstanding contribution made to the optometric profession


Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science from Ohio State University in recognition of his tireless work in attempting to eliminate avoidable blindness throughout the world


Carol C Koch Award, American Academy of Optometry, for outstanding contributions to the enhancement and development of relations between optometry and other professions or organisations.


Brien is active in international research and is the author of over 220 refereed papers, 26 book chapters and 380 refereed abstracts. His research focus has been in the area of ocular health with contact lenses and surgery and vision with all forms of vision correction. Research conducted by Brien and George Mertz set the industry benchmark for the oxygen permeability of lenses which are needed to maintain ocular health.

Brien has contributed to many research and development projects. He is currently working on new technology to slow the growth of myopia, implantable contact lenses to correct a range of refractive conditions and a revolutionary dynamic gel lens system to restore normal vision to those with ageing sight (presbyopia). These products could drive a very significant expansion in the vision correction business.


Throughout these endeavours, Professor Holden has been a champion for the profession of optometry, often not through conventional channels, but by proving what optometry can do. He has strived to have optometry’s role in eye care and vision correction recognised by healthcare professions, by governments and by industry.

When presenting Brien with the Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Durban-Westville in 2002, Professor Kovin Naidoo said that he was nominated for the honour because he had, “Single-handedly brought optometry and refractive error to the forefront of the WHO Vision 2020 programme”. This, he said, “Has not only empowered the profession, but it has created access to refractive services to millions of poor people.” In total, Brien Holden has been awarded five honorary doctorates from institutions around the world for his contributions to research and eye care.

The future

Brien will tell you that these achievements have been made not just by him, but by a team. In an interview earlier this year, he said, “The key to this extraordinary growth has been, and will always be, the people who were attracted to pursue our great goals by working in and with our group. Some of the best minds in research, education, public health, professional managerial and infrastructure development created opportunity after opportunity to grow and contribute.”

The name Brien Holden Vision Institute recognises Brien Holden’s inspiration and leadership in all of the organisations he has helped to establish, not just the Institute for Eye Research. The Brien Holden Vision Institute will continue to be inspired by Brien’s drive, courage, insight and, long after his tenure, continue his legacy of taking every opportunity to make major contributions to global eye care.

  • The Cornea and Contact Lens Research Unit (CCLRU) at the University of New South Wales;
  • International Society for Contact Lens Research (ISCLR);
  • International Association of Contact Lens Educators (IACLE); Institute for Eye Research (IER);
  • Cooperative Research Centre for Eye Research and Technology (CRCERT);
  • Vision Cooperative Research Centre (Vision CRC), VisionCare NSW;
  • International Centre for Eyecare Education (ICEE);
  • Optometry Giving Sight