John Anderson

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 10 August 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:355
  1. Michael Day

    Ophthalmologist whose 100 bed eye hospital in Afghanistan has survived four decades of war

    In typically matter of fact style, John Anderson, known as Jock to his friends, liked to say that he worked to prevent people from starving. Dr Anderson, an ophthalmologist and world authority in trachoma, who spent a good part of 30 years practising in the developing world, was always quick to point out that without sight his patients could not work, and without work they would not eat.

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    John Anderson (left) would drive to Kabul airport to chase up deliveries of corneas

    His most obvious legacy is the 100 bed eye hospital that he established in Kabul in 1968; the clinic has survived the brutal vicissitudes of Afghanistan's past four decades and is still saving the sight of thousands of people every year.

    John Anderson was born in Redbourne, Lincolnshire, in 1924. At 16 he began dedicating a part of every day to prayer and reading the bible, a habit he continued for the rest of his life.

    After graduating in natural sciences from Cambridge he studied medicine at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School and gained his first jobs at Bedford General Hospital. But in 1955 he leapt at the opportunity to work as a general surgeon at a missionary hospital in Pakistan. It was here in the CMS Christian Hospital in Quetta that Dr Anderson was able to feel more spiritually and professionally fulfilled.

    The hospital's large ophthalmic clinic was also responsible for arousing his interest in ophthalmology. By 1958 he was working as an ophthalmic registrar at the Christian Medical College in the Punjab in India. A year later he returned to Pakistan to begin developing his “caravan hospital,” which would provide mobile general medical, surgical, and ophthalmic care to remote desert communities.

    His commitment to providing medicine to the developing world was such that he was determined that he and his family live in remote desert areas of Pakistan without electricity, in order to fulfil his calling.

    Dr Anderson enjoyed good relations with local people, although there were darker moments. On one occasion in Pakistan, a small child dashed out in front of his moving Land Rover, and was struck and killed. Dr Anderson was saved from a lynch mob only by the timely arrival of the police.

    By 1967 his ambitions had grown and he moved on to Afghanistan as consultant ophthalmologist with the National Organisation for Ophthalmic Rehabilitation (NOOR) in Kabul, where, with the help of the Afghan government, he established a 100 bed eye hospital and postgraduate ophthalmology teaching centre.

    NOOR, which is the farsi word for “light,” also established treatment camps around the country, often in perilous conditions. But even in the Afghan capital the clinicians were not safe. And on one occasion a hospital pharmacist and his wife both had their throats cut.

    The heat, malnutrition, swirling dust, and ever present flies meant that Dr Anderson and his colleagues were constantly in demand to treat glaucoma, trachoma, and cataracts. But as the violence escalated after the Soviet invasion, he and his staff soon grew skilled in treating eye injuries caused by landmines and shrapnel. Supplies were not always constant, and often Dr Anderson would drive to Kabul airport to chase up deliveries of corneas for transplantation.

    As a result of hostility by the Soviets and subsequently the Taliban, the hospital has had on occasion to close temporarily or relocate. But it has always reopened and to this day functions as a major treatment and teaching centre.

    After stints back in UK medical schools Dr Anderson returned to Afghanistan in 1980. But his work was soon halted owing to the worsening security situation following the Soviet invasion. On his return he was awarded the OBE.

    During the 1980s he also worked brief periods training doctors in another failed state, Somalia. But he began to spend more time back in the United Kingdom and in 1984 was made an honorary consultant in preventive ophthalmology at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.

    In 1988 Dr Anderson was forced by a spinal chord tumour to retire. Following a final operation in 1992, he was left paraplegic. By then the pain and disability had made it impossible to continue practising. He continued to work for the church, though, and even in his wheelchair played “a mean game of table tennis,” according to friends.

    He leaves a wife, Gwendy, and three children.

    John Douglas Chalmers Anderson, former consultant ophthalmologist Afghanistan (b 1924; q Middlesex Hospital Medical School 1952; MA, FRCS, OBE), d 16 June 2006.

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