Lives of the fellows

John Patrick Lee

b.25 October 1946 d.8 October 2010
BM BCh Oxon(1971) DO(1975) FRCS(1978) FRCOphth(1988) FRCP(1993) DM Oxon(2006)

John Lee was one of the world’s most eminent ophthalmologists. A consultant ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital for 25 years, he was also the eighth president of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists. He was particularly known for his use of ‘botox’ or botulinum toxin in the management of strabismus and blepharospasm (uncontrollable blinking), and started the first clinic in the UK specifically for the use of this toxin in eye disorders.

He was born on 25 October 1946 in Kingston upon Thames of immigrant Irish parents, both of whom were teachers. He was the oldest of 11 siblings, and had seven sisters and three brothers. He was educated at St George’s College, Weybridge, an independent co-educational Roman Catholic school, where he excelled and gained five A-levels – one of which he studied on his own, as the school did not allow pupils reading science subjects time to study English. Needless to say, he gained excellent grades in this ‘extra’ subject. In order to buy his school uniform and help the family finances, John Lee worked at a garage in his spare time. At the age of 17, he was accepted by University College, Oxford, for his preclinical studies. Admitting that he never took these studies seriously, he took full advantage of the many other attractions of university life. Enjoying collegiate existence, he rarely missed an undergraduate party, and it was at one of these that he met his future wife, Arabella Rose. They married in 1971 and had two sons.

Strangely for someone who admitted he neglected his undergraduate studies, his depth of general knowledge was so good that he represented his college on the TV quiz University Challenge. He could also complete The Times crossword at an enviable speed, and possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of film and music.

He proceeded to the Westminster Hospital for his clinical training. After qualifying, John considered entering general medicine as a career, but after a brief spell working in infectious diseases, he changed his mind and his choice of specialties – happily for ophthalmology.

So began his formal training in ophthalmology, first at the Oxford Eye Hospital, and then back in London at Moorfields, where he trained with Peter Fells. He then obtained a fellowship to study in the USA at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute of the University of Florida with John Flynn. Founded by Edward W D Norton, a neuro-ophthalmologist, retinal specialist, administrator and teacher, and named after Bascom H Palmer, an ophthalmologist who settled in Miami in the 1920s, the Institute has been consistently ranked as the best eye hospital in the USA.

In 1981 he visited Alan Scott at the Smith-Kettlewell Research Institute in San Francisco to study a new treatment for strabismus using botulinum toxin. He returned from California with some bottles of the toxin tucked in his hand baggage, which he then stored in his fridge at home. A friend who was invited round for a drink helped himself to a beer, but was advised not to touch nor drink from the opaque bottles!

In 1983 John Lee took up a post as a university lecturer at Moorfields and the Institute of Ophthalmology, and was appointed as a consultant ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital two years later, holding appointments at both the High Holborn and City Road branches. At Moorfields, John developed a first-class service for patients with complex strabismus problems, and he inevitably attracted patients from across the UK. In Harley Street he saw also patients from many other countries. He rapidly gained recognition in the ophthalmological world for his technical brilliance and outstanding knowledge.

Easily identifiable with his unruly crop of white hair and short beard, John Lee was often referred to as ‘the old fellow’ by candidates at examinations, although he was much younger than his fellow examiners. This facial feature, together with his rapid speech, made him a natural and popular choice for caricature, particularly in residents’ reviews and shows.

He wrote over 200 papers and many chapters in books. Having championed the use of botulinum toxin in strabismus, he published 45 papers on this important topic alone. John was a brilliant and inspirational teacher, and combined technical excellence with his unique ability to communicate. In constant demand as an authoritative and entertaining speaker, his ‘pearls of wisdom’, mixed with many humorous asides, were always delivered at high speed with a hint of an Irish accent. He taught at the American Academy of Ophthalmology for 20 years and organised the Moorfields squint grand rounds for nearly as long.

Always approachable, he was keen to encourage young doctors, and there was no trace of snobbery or ‘the great man syndrome’ about him. He committed himself to improving the training of ophthalmologists in underdeveloped countries, and worked with Project Orbis, the international charity which works to prevent blindness. He taught strabismus surgery in Uttah Pradesh, India, and in Bangladesh, as well as imparting his knowledge to many of the leading surgeons in Europe and North America.

In 2009 he was elected president of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, the first to be elected by fellow members rather than members of council. He was already proving himself to be effective, pragmatic and well-liked. He also served as president of the ophthalmology section of the Royal Society of Medicine and of the International Strabismus Association. Held in high regard by his colleagues in the USA, he was the first European to be elected to the Association for Research in Strabismus.

John Lee managed to combine a very busy and successful professional life with a wide range of interests outside medicine, including music, theatre and the arts. He attended concerts with Arabella several times a week and, although classical music was a passion, he was equally at home with rock. He became a fan of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which plays baroque, classical and romantic music, mainly at the Southbank Centre in London. He was interested in a wide variety of literature, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to science fiction. Proud of his Irish roots, he loved to relax and spend time in the west of Ireland, where he enjoyed fly fishing.

John Lee died suddenly on 8 October 2010, aged 63, while attending a conference in the USA at Traverse City, Michigan, leaving his many friends, colleagues and patients in a state of shock. He was survived by his wife, Arabella, and their two sons. A research fellowship, organised by the Medical Research Council and the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, has been established in his honour. The fundraising events included ‘John Lee quiz nights’; extremely appropriate in view of John Lee’s wide general knowledge and his ‘quizzical’ approach to many aspects of life.

N Alan Green

[The Royal College of Ophthalmologists ‘John Lee’s Obituary – The Royal College of Ophthalmologists’ – accessed 11 November 2014; Strabismus 2010 18(4) 121-2; The Telegraph 2 December 2010; The Guardian 15 December 2010; The Royal College of Ophthalmologists ‘MRC & RCOphth John Lee Fellowship’§ionTitle=MRC/RCOphth+John+Lee+Fellowship – accessed 11 November 2014; Reproduced, with permission, from Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England]

(Volume XII, page web)

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