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Patrick Trevor-Roper

A distinguished eye surgeon, a philanthropist, and a founder of the Terrence Higgins Trust

Patrick Dacre Trevor-Roper, consultant ophthalmic surgeon Westminster Hospital 1947-82 and Moorfields Eye Hospital 1947-81 (b Alnwick, Northumberland, 7 June 1916; q Cambridge/Westminster Hospital, London, 1940; DOMS, FRCS, MD, Hon FCOphth), d 22 April 2004.

Patrick Dacre Trevor-Roper, known to his many friends as "TR," was an acclaimed eye surgeon. He is best remembered among his colleagues as a marvellous writer, teacher, and leader of the profession. He is known to a wider public for his book The World Through Blunted Sight, which argues that the proportions, perspectives, and palette of many famous painters was related to eyesight conditions such as short sight, astigmatism, glaucoma, and cataract. He established the Haile Selassie Eye Hospital in Addis Ababa and organised the opening of eye hospitals in Lagos and Sierra Leone for the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind. Meanwhile, he stated in a self written obituary he prepared for the BMJ (see below), and which fails to do him justice, that "he enjoyed tilting at social prejudices within his reach."

At Charterhouse School he was a senior classical scholar, but was, he said, "diverted into medicine in order to join his father’s practice." He was an exhibitioner at Clare College, Cambridge. At Westminster Hospital he was persuaded of the delights of ophthalmology by the leading eye surgeon E F King, who occupied a neighbouring mattress in the hospital air raid shelter and who introduced him to Moorfields, where he was to continue as a sympathetic mentor and colleague.

After war service as a captain in the New Zealand Medical Corps from 1943 to 1945 and postgraduate training he became a consultant ophthalmic surgeon at Westminster Hospital and at Moorfields. He established the Moorfields eye bank. He was in private practice from his house in Regent’s Park until he was in his 80s, and at King Edward VII Hospital from 1964 to 1986.

A gentle, dithery, sometimes impatient, boffin-like man, he had an endless sense of fun. He was interested in the young and was said to have a magical way with them. He was chairman or president of many medical students’ clubs by popular acclaim.

He retired at weekends to Long Crichel House, Dorset, a sort of post-Bloomsbury centre for a group of like-minded writers, a circle which included Raymond Mortimer, literary critic for the Times, and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, music critic for the Sunday Times. Here he produced Ophthalmology (Pocket Consultant Series) in 1981 and Ophthalmology: A Textbook for Diploma Students (1955), which became Lecture Notes in Ophthalmology in 1961 and later The Eye and its Disorders, with seven editions and six translations. He also edited or contributed to Diseases of the Cornea and Music at Court. Published in 1970, The World Through Blunted Sight went through four editions. For 38 years he was editor of the Transactions of the Ophthalmological Society UK, which was renamed Eye when the society became the Royal College of Ophthalmologists.

He had a huge number of friends and mixed in cultured circles that included the composer Benjamin Britten, the writers Angus Wilson and Christopher Isherwood, the artist Francis Bacon, and the actors Julie Christie and Helena Bonham-Carter. He spent Christmases at Chatsworth with the Devonshires. He travelled widely, to destinations including Borneo, Nigeria, Malawi, and the Falklands. His travelling companions included Ian Fleming’s widow, Anne, and the marchioness of Dufferin.

In 1955 he was one of a handful of establishment figures to give evidence to the Wolfenden Committee and was therefore instrumental in decriminalising homosexual activity. His fellow witnesses were Peter Wildeblood, a former diplomatic editor of the Daily Mail, and Carl Winter, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. This was a brave thing to do in those days. Wildeblood had been convicted of homosexual offences in a show trial two years earlier, and Trevor-Roper and Winter came forward because they wanted to counteract the bad impression they knew he would make. Trevor-Roper said that gay men posed no threat to heterosexual youth and proposed decriminalisation with an age of consent of 16. He told the committee that he had collected evidence of the extent of blackmail of homosexuals as a result of the state of the law, and said that the level of intolerance led to a large number of young men taking their own lives.

In the 1960s he campaigned against what he called the venal manipulations of drug companies—in particular, the bogus conferences they ran at attractive destinations, where speakers would present papers endorsing the companies’ new products. In the subsequent decade he campaigned successfully against the opticians’ monopoly of the sale of reading glasses. The opticians presumably forgave him, as he attended their annual dinners as a liveryman of the company. He was a trustee of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. The HIV/AIDS charity The Terrence Higgins Trust was founded at his house and was run from there until it expanded into larger premises.

Patrick Trevor-Roper was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease in 2003. In 2004 he developed a cancer in his neck, of unknown primary site. He is survived by Herman Chan, his partner of many years. His brother, Hugh (the historian Lord Dacre of Glanton), and his sister Sheila predeceased him. [Caroline Richmond]

Self written obituary, submitted by Patrick Trevor-Roper to the BMJ on 2 October 1996:

Patrick Dacre Trevor-Roper, a diffident bachelor of moderate erudition and talent, had a rewarding career in ophthalmology, which started with three years in the New Zealand medical corps ( in Italy), and thereafter a lifetime as consultant at Westminster and Moorfields.

He was a senior classical scholar at Charterhouse, but was diverted into medicine in order to join his father’s Northumbrian practice. He lapsed again, when persuaded of the delights of ophthalmology by E F King, who occupied a neighbouring mattress in the Westminster Hospital air-raid shelter, and who then introduced him to Moorfields, where he was to continue as a sympathetic mentor and colleague.

He led a mildly unconventional life, continuing to practise until well into his 80s from his house in Regent’s Park, and retiring at weekends to a writers’ sanctuary in a Dorset rectory. There he produced several ophthalmic textbooks, of which his Lecture Notes survived seven editions (and six translations), and four editions of The World Through Blunted Sight, relating eye defects to patterns of artistry; he also edited a book of essays on 18th century opera. For 38 years he was editor of the Transactions of the Ophthalmological Society, UK (later entitled Eye).

Meanwhile, he enjoyed tilting at social abuses within his reach, such as the sexual prejudices of the 1950s, the venal manipulations of drug companies in the 1960s, and, in the 1970s, launching a (successful) campaign against the monopoly on spectacles. This still left time for travel in the less developed world, founding an eye hospital in Addis Ababa, a mobile eye unit in Sierra Leone, and organising an oculoplastic unit in Lagos during their civil war. He was a Doyne medallist of the Oxford Ophthalmological Society, a vice president of the Ophthalmological Society, UK, section president at the RSM, and a founder member of the International Academy of Ophthalmology.