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James Finbarr (Barry) Cullen

BMJ 2020; 371 doi: (Published 25 November 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m4515
  1. Hector Bryson Chawla

James Finbarr Cullen (“Barry”) was one of the great names in ophthalmology, although he would never have thought that of himself. He qualified at University College Dublin in1952. After the obligatory registration year, he moved into his chosen specialty at the Dublin Eye and Ear Hospital, then on to the Royal Victoria Infirmary and General Hospital in Newcastle. From there he successfully appeared for the fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, six months short of actually being eligible to sit it—an honour that merely confirmed his practice of doing everything in double quick time.

He spent a year at the Wilmer Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore with Frank Walsh, a pioneer in neuro-ophthalmology. This not only drew him into the mysteries of the eye-brain nexus but also gave him an interest that would absorb him for the following 60 years.

On his return to the UK, his new skill made him the chosen candidate, despite strong local opposition, for the post of senior lecturer with Professor George Scott in Edinburgh. With the new Eye Pavilion due to open in 1969, the timing was perfect for the professor to entrust Barry with executive freedom to plan and select the equipment.

This he did, but in his view, there was more to a first class unit than instruments. The junior doctors were of even greater importance; he wanted them to be trained and not just left to absorb the subject by simply being there. The most junior doctor in the professorial unit was therefore relieved of commitments in the clinics for six months in the first year. Friday afternoons were given over to teaching sessions, which are still a sacrosanct end to the hospital week.

For the nurses, he realised that by promoting Edinburgh as the centre …

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