Go back to article: Rather unspectacular: design choices in National Health Service glasses

Optical industry context and histories

This article does not discuss the complex workings of the ophthalmic profession and its organisations in detail; here it offers merely a brief background to give sufficient context for this topic. Vision aids date back to the thirteenth century and optometry has a complex history, involving centuries of scientific and technological advances and, more recently, the complicated politics of several professional organisations; some excellent histories of the major associations can elaborate the finer details of these relationships (Law, 1978; Mitchel, 1982; Stanton, 1963).[13] As can be seen in the Science Museum galleries, the nineteenth century saw huge advances in mathematics, physics and associated optical sciences; developments in materials resulted in improvements in lens production and the ability to manufacture optical appliances such as spectacles, telescopes, microscopes and other optical instruments. Opticians sought official recognition of their skills through a request for official training and qualifications. The Optician journal was founded in 1890 as a forum for discussing issues relating to optics and professional recognition.[14] As a historical resource this publication offers a wealth of information revealing the concerns of the trade and provides a fruitful primary source for this industry; and the Optician weekly journal continues to be produced today, with a readership of optical practitioners and trades. Within the world of eye care there are variations in the responsibility and qualifications of different optical practitioners; an ophthalmologist, an ophthalmic optician; and a dispensing optician.[15] For the purposes of clarity this article uses the term ‘optical practitioners’ when referring to eye specialists that the public may encounter, the term ‘optical trade’ when referring to manufacturers of frames and lenses and prescription houses, and ‘optical industry’ when referring to both sides of the profession.

The National Health Service Acts of 1946 introduced a health service that was accessible to all citizens providing free medical care, dental treatment, sight tests and ophthalmic services.[16] Radical plans were made for special ophthalmic departments and clinics to be part of hospital eye services. These plans were ambitious and until they could be developed a Supplementary Ophthalmic Service was organised, administered by the NHS executive committee of each local area.[17] Initially a sight test and corrective optical appliances were free, but charges were gradually introduced for the NHS range of glasses. The overwhelming demand for eyecare and corrective aids caused the first challenge to the principle that healthcare under the new ‘Welfare State’ was free at the point of delivery. Hugh Gaitskell introduced charges for dentures and spectacles and this caused a crisis in the government in April 1951 when Nye Bevan, Harold Wilson (then President of the Board of Trade) and John Freeman resigned in protest at the breach of the main principle of the fledgling NHS.

Figure 6

Colour photograph of a 1950 display case showing various styles of NHS spectacles

Range of NHS spectacle frames available in 1950. Display case produced by manufacturers M Wiseman & Co c.1949

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170703/004