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HomemistoryImmersed in History: Professor Barry Cole Brings the Past into the Future

Immersed in History: Professor Barry Cole Brings the Past into the Future

An intriguing history of Australian optometry, written with insight that comes only from being immersed in the profession over decades, demonstrates the extraordinary persistence and commitment of a huge number of optometrists over 200 years.

Authored by Professor Barry Cole, and published by the Australian College of Optometry in commemoration of its 75th anniversary, A History of Australian Optometry took two and a half years to research and write, and “got pretty intense” as production neared. Barry Cole was foundation Professor of Optometry in the University of Melbourne from1978 to 1999 and the first full time Director of the Australian College of Optometry from 1964 to 1998.

Professor Cole said he has always been interested in history. “As a lecturer I tended to regale my students with the historical origins of present knowledge when teaching vision science and optometry, much to their exasperation. ‘Do we have to learn all this?’ they would cry.” His interest in history was fostered by studying history and philosophy of science, Australian history and history of art in a never competed BA degree. When he retired, he became an archivist at the Cyril Kett Optometry Museum, working alongside long-serving archivists in the Kett Museum, Pam Sutton and Michael Aitken, cataloguing, finding out more about the history of optometry in this country. “I learned a lot from them and it started to intrigue me,” he said.

Professor Cole’s book is not the first history of Australian optometry. In 1988 Australian optometrist Charles Wright published a detailed tome, which included letters and speeches made by members of the profession reproduced verbatim. However Professor Cole’s publication builds on the facts, bringing the reader up to the minute with, according to Professor Nathan Efron, “passion and flair… suspense, intrigue, comedy and drama”. As Professor Cole explained, it weaves together the stories of optometrists with “non-optometrist white knights who saw a cause worth supporting”… and the “black knights who stood in the way”.

Some advertised as optician and aurist, offering, in addition to spectacles, ‘the Organic Vibrator for the relief
and cure of deafness’

It was a story that was well worth writing, says Professor Cole, because he was able to give credit to so many optometrists who gave so much of their time to pursue the vision of establishing a dignified profession akin to that of medicine. “They worked hard to achieve this – society was changing and technology was changing; as a consequence, the way we deliver health care has changed dramatically. So this is not just a story about optometry, it’s also a story about changing society, changes in health service delivery and huge advances in technologies which opened up opportunities that optometrists were smart enough to do something about.”

In the Thick of Optometry

Professor Cole was in the thick of the making of Australian optometry history for 65 years. His father was an optometrist and he followed in his father’s footsteps by qualifying in optometry at the Australian College of Optometry in 1955. He was the first full-time lecturer in the Australian College of Optometry, a job he took up in 1959 and became Director of Studies in the College in 1964. He headed the Department of Optometry and Vision Sciences in the University of Melbourne when it was established in 1973. Professor Cole was appointed the foundation Professor of Optometry at the University of Melbourne in 1978 and is now Professor Emeritus. He was Director of the Australian College of Optometry from 1964 to 1998.

He said sourcing much of the information for the book was relatively easy, until he approached the profession’s most recent history. “A couple of times I nearly ran out of steam; in the later chapters where I wasn’t a player in the events – the last 15 years – we got access to therapeutics and new involvements in public health – and I knew that with less personal knowledge, it would be a lot of work to find out the story, to put it together.”

Usually when people write a recent history they choose to rely on talking to people who have been part of that history. “I didn’t do a great deal of that, I relied on my own personal knowledge and documented sources – Clinical and Experimental Optometry – issues of which are online back to 1919, the Australian Journal of Optometry, and documentary resources held in the Kett.”

Now watching from the Sidelines

Of course history continues and so with time, there may be more for Professor Cole to write about. For now, he is enjoying watching from the sidelines. “We are in an interesting era where we have this third player, the multinational corporates. They are a force that carries the risk of dumbing the profession down and limiting its scope in an effort to achieve the greatest amount of revenue and profit into the business without a full appreciation of what is needed to provide first class eye care for the greatest community benefit.

“Counteracting this is strong and effective legislation that is now in place to keep practitioners on the straight and narrow, although a down side of this is that optometrists no longer directly self-regulate. This means they no longer have to think so seriously about ethics or debate the ways in which we should practice from an ethical point of view. The thinking has all been done for us. How it works out will be interesting.”

Professor Cole is keen to point out that from the early 1900s, the emerging optometry profession modelled itself on medicine and consequently, even while working in an unregulated environment and without formalised training, endeavoured to uphold the highest ethical standards. He points out that one of the first things the Australian Optometry Association did in the first years after its formation in 1918 was to adopt a detailed and very principled code of ethics and standards. This national code was adopted at the fourth national conference of the Association held in Brisbane in 1921.

A Profession Built on Ethics

Professor Cole’s A History of Australian Optometry presents some amusing and insightful examples of the way in which opticians, as they were then identified, communicated their ethical values, professionalism and expertise.

One advertisement that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, 8 February 1836, was placed by J Maclehose, self-described as an optician and umbrella and parasol maker. In part it read:

“J.M. respectfully begs to remind the Public that SIGHT though the most extensive source of our enjoyment, is the most neglected; and it cannot but be regretted that the means generally resorted to for its preservation and improvement are too frequently worse than futile, in consequence of ignorant Persons taking upon themselves to assist the SIGHT with GLASSES which are not adapted for the Individual’s EYE – circumstances which, if neglected, will assuredly terminate in the injury, if not extinction of their SIGHT.

“Persons who may have had their SIGHT injured by improper GLASSES, and particularly by the heat of this climate, which they excite in the EYE, and all PERSONS who are subject to weakness, opacity, or any optical defect, are respectfully solicited to make a trial of MACLEHOSE’S IMPROVED GLASSES, which are highly recommended by some of the first professional Gentlemen, and other Persons of the first respectability in this Colony, who have worn them, and consider them to be the greatest improvement ever made for the recovery and preservation of the SIGHT.”

Through research Professor Cole found that opticians in the early 1800s were few in number (“There may have been as few as 50 in the whole of Australia styling themselves as opticians in the mid-1800s”); and many, he writes, were also “jewellers or watchmakers or merchants who sold optical and meteorological instruments of various kinds”.

Some advertised as optician and aurist, offering, in addition to spectacles, “the Organic Vibrator for the relief and cure of deafness”.

Because sight testing and selling glasses was not regulated in the 19th century, any title or claim could be made. Common to several ads referred to in Professor Cole’s book was the promotion of superior qualifications and experience serving the learned and royalty. For example, one advertisement, run by Mr. A. P. Greenfield, ophthalmic optician of George Street Brisbane, claimed his practice to be “‘The Well-known Oculists Opticians’…. Optician to His EXCELLENCY THE GOVERNOR (Sir Wylie Norman, G.C.M.G.). And all the leading Politicians and Prominent Citizens of Queensland, Honorary Ophthalmic Optician to the Brisbane Hospital.”

He cites another “Royal Oculist, Optician and Aurist, Mr. Rosenthal” who claimed to serve the King of Prussia and the Emperor or Russia, amongst other notables.

Additionally, Professor Cole writes about “A fascinating booklet written about 1890 by a Melbourne optometrist, Theo Proctor, (which) throws some light on this as well as revealing the nature of optometric practice…” Styling himself as ‘oculist, optician, and scientific ophthalmologist’ … he makes no claim to be medically qualified but presented himself as “a superior form of optician different from those who make spectacles. He sees refractive errors as diseases of the eye… and is willing to tackle strabismus and nystagmus along with the most challenging refractive corrections and to treat inflamed and granulous eyes using ointments.” Theo Proctor was an adventurous optometrist, well ahead of his time, but he was also in his earlier years a gold prospector, a prize-winning silversmith and something of an astronomer, helping in observing the transit of Venus in 1874 in the company of Charles Darwin’s son.

Searching for an Identity

The 19th century was clearly a time when eye care providers were searching for an identity they could call their own. Professor Cole writes that the term “practical optician” was used from 1850, although, he acknowledges, it is not clear what this means. “It may mean that some form of sight testing or assistance in choosing glasses is given or that glasses are made to order by the optician. It is often used in optician advertisements for the next 75 years.” At the same time, the number of opticians practising in Australia was on the increase. “A search of Australian newspapers for advertisements for ‘optician’ from 1850 to 1875 through the National Library of Australia ‘Trove’ database finds over 7,000 compared to only 180 between 1831 and 1850,” writes Professor Cole.

“Interestingly one practical optician from Adelaide, Charles Sawtell, advertised in the South Australian Register of May 1,1880 and in numerous subsequent advertisements, that his was the only establishment where astigmatic spectacles can be fitted…in his advertisements he gives more space to extolling the virtues of the weather glasses and scientific instruments he had shipped back with him (from London) than to his astigmatic spectacles. He was also prepared to sell you a sextant, a rifle sight or a rain gauge.” Nothing like diversification.

In his review of advertisements, Professor Cole found no direct mention of sight testing until 1885. “The first seems to be that for W.E. Toose, Optician, who in the Sydney Evening News on March 12, 1885, advertised not only that he tested sight but made use of an optometer to do so.”

He said by 1887, the title ophthalmic optician had appeared with advertisements claiming “superior methods of testing”.

Formalising Training

Clearly those in the burgeoning profession were looking to further expand their scope of practise as was the case in the United Kingdom where formalised training and examination was established by the Spectacle Makers Company and the British Optical Association in 1898. Indeed an Australian was very the first to gain Fellowship of the Spectacle Makers Company, as Professor Cole points out.

“There was no formal training in optometry in Australia in the 19th century: opticians either taught themselves or were taught by their employer. There is one recorded instance where an optician had been trained by an ophthalmologist. This was Carl Laubman who was employed and trained by noted Adelaide ophthalmologist, Dr. T.K. Hamilton. Laubman later set up his own optometry practice in the mining town of Broken Hill and later in 1908 joined in partnership with Harold Pank to establish the optometry firm of Laubman and Pank that continued with a family connection for nearly 100 years before being acquired by corporate interests.”

It was Carl Werner who really made global history for Australian eye care. He sailed to London in 1896 and sat the examination for Fellowship of the Spectacle Makers Company in 1898. “He was the very first to qualify for the Fellowship of the Spectacle Makers Company and was awarded certificate No. 1,” writes Professor Cole.

Professor Cole notes that “between 1898 and 1903 a thousand opticians completed the SMC examinations and 10 of them were Australians”.

It was in 1904, just three years after the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed, that Australia’s opticians first started to organise themselves as a profession with an official association. New South Wales made the first push, establishing, The Australasian Optical Association, a name Professor Cole writes, “expressed clear intent to serve as a national association”. However it took another 16 years for all States to come round.

The Queensland Institute of Ophthalmic Opticians was established in 1908, the Victorian Optical Association in 1911; the South Australian Optical Association was founded in 1913; and the Western Australian Optical Association formed in 1916. The origins of Tasmania’s association are unclear, Professor Cole writes. “Tasmanian optometrists may have formed an association in 1908 but evidence is slender: one report in The Optical News of 1911. However it seems Tasmania was blessed with not one but two associations in the early 1900s, one located in Launceston in the north and one in the south in Hobart… The Australasian Optometrical Association, the national body now known as Optometry Australia, was founded as a federation of the State associations at the first national conference of State Associations held in Melbourne on December 3–6, 1918.”

With the search for identity still on the agenda, the title ‘optometrist’ had come into use in 1905 however it wasn’t until 1913 that the term ‘optometry’ was defined in the Tasmanian Optician’s Act. It was defined in the Act as: “Optometry’ or ‘the practice of optometry’ means the employment of methods other than the use of drugs for the measurement of the powers of vision and the adaptation of lenses for the aid thereof.”

The purpose of the Act was “to secure the better training of opticians to regulate their practice, and for other purposes”. The word ‘Optometrist’ was not defined.

“The First National Conference of the State Associations in 1918 recommended the State Associations change their names to include ‘optometrists’ or ‘Optometrical’, either to ‘Institute of Optometrists’ or ‘Optometrical Association’. The first was South Australia in 1920 followed by NSW in 1922, Queensland in 1934 and Western Australia in 1952. Victoria waited until it was agreed in 1952 that the State Associations would adopt a uniform style of Australian Optometrical Association followed by the name of the State.”

Professor Cole notes that Australia was well up with international colleagues in embracing the name.

“Australian optometrists were surprisingly quick adopters of ‘optometry’ and ‘optometrist’ to describe their profession and themselves. The USA had lead the way in adopting the new name for the profession in the very early years of the 20th century… The British College of Optometrists did so tentatively when it was founded in 1979 to supersede the British Optical Association.”

“The newly formed optometrical associations quickly turned their attention to improving the education of optometrists and saw the need for legislation to prescribe minimum standards of education.”

Emerging Opposition

This was met with organised opposition from the medical profession, which Professor Cole writes, “did not want to share its prestige or its market with competitors” in optometry or other allied health professions.

“Opposition to optometry was formalised as policy in 1911 by a special resolution at the Australasian Medical Congress in Sydney to oppose any legislation that might authorise sight testing by opticians and that while they should be properly trained as spectacle makers to fill oculists prescriptions for glasses, they should be subordinated, as are pharmacists.”

Despite this decidedly fierce opposition, legislation to regulate optometry in Australia under State Acts was first enacted in Tasmania in 1913 and had been enacted across all States and Territories by 1958.

This, Professor Cole writes, presented its own problems because “each State recognised the optometry qualification available in their own State where there was one, but mostly did not recognise qualifications in other States unless they had to because there was no local qualification”.

The Mutual Recognition Act, enacted in 1992 aimed to address this problem and facilitate greater mobility of all trades and professions between States, however the effect was “the State that set the lowest standard of educational qualification for registration set the minimum standard for the whole country” because registration in one State had to be recognised by every other Australian State.

Introduction of uniform educational standards

Professor Cole writes that the solution was found in the establishment of the Optometry Council of Australia and New Zealand (OCANZ) in 1996. “This was an important step toward the regulation of optometry in Australia on a national basis” and led in the early years by optometrist Jane Duffy. This independent body was tasked with conducting examinations of the competency of optometrists who held overseas qualifications and assessing and accrediting existing and new schools of optometry in Australia and New Zealand.

Recognising the problems associated with registering the health professions in the separate States and Territories, Professor Cole writes that “the Commonwealth Government obtained agreement from the States to repeal all their legislation for regulation of the health professions and to work together to establish a national system. The Health Practitioner Regulation National Law of 2009 was the result. This required each State and Territory to adopt the national Law, which they did during 2009 and 2010 for commencement on July 1, 2010. Fourteen health professions, including medicine and optometry, are now registered by 14 Boards, one for each of the health professions, working under one umbrella of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency… National registration of the profession… ensures uniformity in standards of education and practice throughout the country and promotes quicker adaptation to meet the changing eye care needs of the community.”

The May issue of mivision will draw on Professor Cole’s research into securing the right to prescribe therapeutic medicines which is greatly expanding the scope of optometric practise as well as Indigenous eye health and Australia’s role in supporting the eye health of developing countries.


About Professor Barry Cole

Professor Barry Cole was in the thick of the making of the history of optometry in Australia for 65 years. His father was an optometrist and he followed in his father’s footsteps by qualifying in optometry at the Australian College of Optometry in 1955. He was the first full-time lecturer in the Australian College of Optometry, a job he took up in 1959 and became Director of Studies in the College in 1964. He headed the Department of Optometry and Vision Sciences in the University of Melbourne when it was established in 1973. Professor Cole was appointed the foundation Professor of Optometry at the University of Melbourne in 1978 and is now Professor Emeritus. He was Director of the Australian College of Optometry from 1964 to 1998.


Research medal of the British Optical Association, awarded on the occasion
of the 75th anniversary of the Association, 1970

Life Governor Association for the Blind in recognition of role establishing the low vision clinic 1975

Made an Officer of the Order of Australia 1987 for services to medicine and optometry

Honorary Life Member of the Australian College of Optometry 1990 –

Garland Clay Award of the American Academy of Optometry recognising the publication of a most significant paper in the journal of the Academy 1990

Honorary Life Member, Commission Internationale d’Éclairage 1996 for his work on the ergonomics of signal lights and signs and chairing a number of CIE committees that wrote international guidelines and standards

Portrait commissioned by the Victorian College of Optometry 1998

Honorary Doctor of the University, Queensland University of Technology 1999

The Victorian College of Optometry building named the Barry Cole Building 1999

Honorary Life Member, Optometrists Association Australia 2003

Honorary Doctor of Science, The State University of New York 2006

Honorary Life Governor, University College, University of Melbourne 2009

Research Interests

Professor Barry Cole has research interests in occupational health and visual ergonomics, with a special interest in abnormal colour vision and its occupational consequences. He has published over 150 research papers and editorials and more recently some 20 profiles of prominent optometrists and historical papers.

A History of Australian Optometry

A History of Australian Optometry can be purchased from the Optometry Australia Bookshop or direct from the publisher, the Australian College of Optometry.