Frank Dickinson, Optometrist 1906-78

International contact lens pioneer, researcher and writer

Developed the micro-corneal lens at his practice in St Annes Square

Frank Dickinson was born in Blackpool on 14 November 1906, the eldest of four children of Benjamin Oswald Dickinson, an engineer, and Prudence (Bamber). He attended Barrow-in-Furness Grammar School and came to Lytham St Annes in 1921, becoming articled to his aunt, Mrs Maud Farnworth, then unusual as a woman in optical practice. His family ran Dickinson’s Café, a prominent feature in Lytham Square for many years, but he usually lived with his aunt and her husband.  Dickinson studied in the evenings travelling to the College of Technology in Manchester and gained the diploma of the British Optical Association (with Honours) at the early age of nineteen – a professional qualification he was not allowed to use until he was twenty-one.

In 1928 Dickinson was elected to membership of the St Annes Rotary Club and was an enthusiastic Rotarian for the rest of his life, becoming the youngest club president in the UK in 1935. The Rotary motto ‘Service before Self’ fitted exactly his ideals about how optical practitioners should look after their patients and he gave regular talks to clubs here and often visited those abroad.   

In 1930 he established his own practice and two years later moved to 35 The Square, St Annes. By 1936 his rooms were elaborately laid out with all the most modern décor and equipment and they were featured in the Lytham St Annes Review, which gave them an illustrated full-page spread, and in the optical press.

In 1932 he married Muriel Porter (1906-2003): their son Peter and daughter Meriel became professional musicians. Apart from a year in South Africa in 1949, the family lived in Lytham and music was always an important part of Frank Dickinson’s life too. He was organist and choir-master of two Methodist Churches in the borough – Fairhaven (1933-1943) and Park Street, Lytham (1950-1977). On the secular side Dickinson organised the Concert Party, a kind of variety show for local entertainment started during the war. He acted as compère, would play the piano for soloists and his wife would give recitations, which she also did in her own right for many years as dramatic recitals. Dickinson was also committed to issues of the day, writing articles and giving talks in support of organisations such as the League of Nations and describing his experiences in America and South Africa.

Frank Dickinson began his study of contact lenses in 1935, which took him to the United States in 1936 and again in 1939. On this second visit he met K. Clifford Hall by chance on the deck of the RMS Queen Mary in Cherbourg Harbour and they collaborated on the first British textbook, An Introduction to the Prescribing and Fitting of Contact Lenses (1946). During the war Dickinson was Senior Refractionist at the Royal Ordnance Factory, Chorley, and immediately afterwards he visited South Africa to introduce contact lens techniques. In 1945 travelling down Africa by air could be an adventure and, as usual, he enjoyed his journeys and made them the basis of lively talks and articles. He soon succumbed to the lure of South Africa – the climate, the way of life and professional opportunities  – and continued to visit and contribute to optometry there. He remained convinced of the need for social progress and tolerance among all races as the way forward. 

In England Dickinson was a Founder Member of the Contact Lens Society (1946) and then became Founder Secretary of the International Society of Contact Lens Specialists (1952), a position he held until his death. The ISCLS arose from collaboration between him, Dr Wilhelm P. Söhnges of Munich, and Dr John C. Neil of Philadelphia. With these colleagues Dickinson pioneered a new type of lens, the microlens, and introduced it in 1952. The simpler technique of the small corneal lens gave new impetus to Dickinson’s advocacy of contact lenses – a task he carried out tirelessly in busy professional practice, in over three hundred published articles, and at many international conferences. He always wore lenses himself and so does his daughter Meriel, from the age of twelve, a case he often documented.

From the post-war years onwards, Dickinson was increasingly in demand as a lecturer in many parts of the world, and his advice was sought by universities and professional bodies. He served on the Council of the British Optical Association from 1947 and became President in 1961, the year when he became Founder Chairman of the Ophthalmic Group of the Royal Society of Health, of which he became a Fellow (1965).

Frank Dickinson’s American connections were particularly fruitful and he always enjoyed his visits there, where he had many friends. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry (1945); was given the Doctor of Ocular Science, Beta Sigma Kappa (Scientific Section), Chicago (1956); the Grand Honours Award of the Eye Research Foundation (1959); Contact Lens Diplomas from the International College of Ocular Science, Illinois (1956) and the American Academy of Optometry (1962); and the International Award of the Heart of America Contact Lens Society (1971). At home he received the Research Medal of the British Optical Association (1960); the Owen Aves Medal of the Yorkshire Optical Society (1962); and he especially valued the Honorary MSc from Bradford University, which was conferred by their Chancellor, then Sir Harold Wilson, in 1972.

Frank Dickinson’s European reputation grew alongside his stature in the English-speaking world. In the mid-1950s he learnt German to be able to lecture and attend conferences in German-speaking countries. He received the Herschel Gold Medal of the ISCLS (1957) and was made an Honorary Member of the West German Wissenschaftliche Vereinigung der Augenoptiker (1967), where he had been a guest lecturer at congresses for several years.

In 1965 Dickinson became a Director of Dollond and Aitchison Limited, because he  recognised the important role such organisations would have in the future. He served as Vice-Chairman and finally Chairman of the Professional Standards Committee until his death. He was devoted to his patients and he never retired.

Throughout his career Frank Dickinson was concerned both with research and with standards in his profession. He was so anxious to share information that he regularly and promptly wrote reports on all the international gatherings he attended, sometimes covering the same conference for two journals. By advocating higher standards of diagnosis and patient care and extolling the virtues of contact lenses, he played a major role in enhancing the status of the profession as a whole. For almost forty years his own activities were news and were fully reported. The top international contact lens specialists became celebrities within their field and their conferences were held in glamorous settings.

At Dickinson’s death the national press wrote of the debt which wearers of contact lenses owed to him and colleagues paid tribute to his versatility, generosity and humour. This last quality was always in evidence. Dickinson’s first surviving article was a spoof written at the age of nineteen based on the optical references lurking within the Old Testament book of Job. The editor thought this was too risky but published an article submitted with it, now lost.

Dickinson admired the American versifier Ogden Nash and Christmas numbers of the optical journals often contained amusing quips in a similar vein related to the hazards experienced by contact-lens wearers. His skilful drawings, covering subjects such as the Borough’s tramcars and the now demolished Majestic Hotel, are valuable and sympathetic records of local history in Lytham St Annes.

The Frank Dickinson Archive of published and unpublished material has been established at the Wellcome Trust in London. In 1980 Dollond and Aitchison endowed the Frank Dickinson Tutorial Clinic at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, opened by Muriel Dickinson, so it was particularly appropriate that the blue plaque in St Annes Square, marking Dickinson’s centenary, was supported by Dollond and Aitchison and placed on their premises.

Professor Peter Dickinson
Foxborough House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk IP15 5QD
March 2006

© 2008-24 Estate of Peter Dickinson