World Sight Day: Frank Billson’s vision for change

By Anabel Dean

In line with World Sight Day, we share the story of Frank Billson AO (TC 1954), who built a legendary reputation for patient care in a career dedicated to the alleviation of suffering.

Frank BillsonFor a man regarded as one of the most significant figures to emerge in the field of ophthalmology over the last century, there has been a lifetime of recognition.

Professor Frank Billson’s achievement awards are almost too numerous to recall, but ask him about the key details, and he cuts straight to the heart of the matter.

‘The patient is everything,’ he says. ‘In 50 years of medicine, I have never forgotten the person behind the disease.’

Frank’s first salutary lesson at the University of Melbourne – having been awarded a Commonwealth scholarship – was personal and enduring. He was struck down by a mysterious illness in his second year as a medical student and the idea of a lengthy hospitalisation was profoundly disturbing.

‘Before the diagnosis, I wanted to know what was going on,’ he recalls. ‘The doctor was looking at X-rays in my bedroom and saying, “This is a time for contemplation: have you ever read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? I just thought, what the hell is he talking about? He should have said: “I’ve got bad news for you: you’ve tested positive for tuberculosis. It could go either way. You’ll be in bed for months”.’

Frank’s experience helped him recognise doctors who had empathy as opposed to those who were interested only in the clinical diagnosis.

He completed his medical degree in 1958, five years after being discharged from the sanatorium, and having had half a lung removed.

‘My time at Trinity College was a tremendous exercise in maturation from adolescence,’ he says. ‘I enjoyed the wonderful intellect of colleagues who, ultimately, went on to be significant in other disciplines.’

His focus changed while undertaking neurology training in the Alfred Hospital’s eye department where he developed a keen interest in neuro-ophthalmology.

‘I was excited by the potential of eye surgery to directly improve quality of life,’ he says. ‘Patients could see again with cataracts removed and it was wonderful to be able to contribute to a diagnosis or sight-saving surgery.’

There was, at that time, a four-year waiting list to train in ophthalmology in Australia so Frank moved to Leeds in England to begin his training. He returned to Australia in 1966 to work as a researcher in Melbourne University’s Department of Ophthalmology and as an ophthalmic surgeon at the Alfred Hospital. Soon, he was head of paediatric ophthalmology at the Royal Children’s Hospital, working as a neonatal ophthalmologist at Mercy Maternity Hospital and the Royal Women’s Hospital.

‘There’s a special place in my heart for children and one must never underestimate a child’s ability to understand,’ he says.

Frank moved to Sydney to become Foundation Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology at the University of Sydney in 1977, where he established a training program in ophthalmology with posts in every state of Australia and the Torres Strait Islands.

His skills as clinician and researcher improved the lives of, quite literally, thousands of people. He spent close to 25 years with the neonatal health team at the Eye Hospital and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney having pioneered in-ward (rather than post-discharge) screening to prevent blindness in premature babies.

In 1978, he co-founded Foresight Australia, a not-for-profit organisation committed to the prevention and cure of blindness, which enables local doctors to develop skills in cataract surgery and other procedures across the Asia Pacific region.

Later, he established the Sight for Life Foundation, which supports Sydney Eye Hospital’s registrar training program by providing access to facilities and experienced teachers free of charge.

Frank was made chair of the World Health Organisation’s Vision 2020 taskforce, which aimed to eliminate preventable blindness in children – ‘an overall success’ – following the discovery of the role of vitamin A deficiency and supplemental oxygen in the development of preventable blindness in premature babies.

‘People don’t achieve things alone,’ Frank concludes with characteristic humility, reflecting on his career success. ‘They achieve as part of a team.’

By Anabel Dean

This article first appeared in issue 89 of Trinity Today

14 Oct 2021
Category: People