Winner: Bob Chappell
The optometrist shares his career in optics, as he is named the recipient of the AOP Awards 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award
“I suppose it was a bit inevitable that I entered optics,” optometrist Bob Chappell shares with a smile, when talking about a career that has spanned more than 50 years. From practice ownership and industry to optical body presidencies and charity work, Mr Chappell has been a pivotal player in driving the profession forward in a wide range of areas, both in UK, Europe and globally.
In the blood
Born into optics, Mr Chappell’s father was the first of three generations to embark on a career in optics. “My father started his optical career as an apprentice in an opticians in Doncaster and it wasn’t long before the lure of the big smoke brought him down to London for a job at M Wiseman and Co, a lens and frame manufacturing company,” he recounts.
In its heyday, the factory produced more than 1.5 million spectacles a year, and as a sales manager for the business, Mr Chappell’s father used his knowledge of frame design to invent the nylon supra, a plastic brow bar with the lens suspended by a thin nylon card.
While he secured a patent for this invention in 1937, his father went off to war shortly after, fighting in the Indian Army. However, the invention, and its potential, was not forgotten and on his return, Mr Chappell’s father sold part of the patent to a company in the US in the late 1940s.
It was the funds from this sale that allowed his father to establish Pell Optical, a prescription manufacturing lab, which Mr Chappell recalls fondly from his childhood.
“When I was a teenager, I would often go down to the prescription lab at the weekend and be given odd jobs to do — I found the environment interesting.”
However, Mr Chappell admits that while he spent many a weekend at the family’s business, he became aware of optics at a much younger age, as he recalls his father’s long, animated telephone conversations with George Giles when the Opticians Act was passed by the Government in 1958.
As a result, optics was a natural step for Mr Chappell when it came to selecting his own career path — yet he doesn’t mind admitting that he initially wavered between optics and the law.
In the beginning
Mr Chappell studied at City University — or Northampton College of Advanced Technology as it was known then — and graduated in 1965. A Master’s followed, during which time, by his own admission, he began to “dabble” in student politics. Becoming President of the Students Union allowed Mr Chappell to entertain his interest in the law, a passion that he credits as responsible for much of his work with optical bodies over the years.
Reaching a career crossroads after obtaining his Master’s, Mr Chappell explained with honesty: “I was always aware that the family business was an option, so when it came to deciding which path to take, I felt that in many ways entering industry would be more fun.”
However, success was not handed to him on a plate and Mr Chappell would have to rise through the ranks himself. “I started in the very hands-on areas of the business, first in lens surfacing, before gradually moving up to become a sales manager,” he explained.
With seven years of experience under his belt, Mr Chappell became Managing Director of the family business in 1974. However, he never lost sight of the testing room, locuming in independent practice until 1978, when he and his optometrist wife opened up their own business, The I Practice, in Sawbridgeworth. Mr Chappell still practices there on part-time basis today, alongside his optometrist son.
Fresh from his stint with the Students Union, Mr Chappell put his political experience to good use at the British Optical Students Association, later becoming a member of the British Optical Association (BOA) in 1978.
His time with the BOA coincided with the establishment of a new optical body, which when officially formed in 1980 would become known as the College of Optometrists. Talking about the then-new body, Mr Chappell explained: “Some people had begun to take exception to how the BOA was being treated, and as a result I joined the College’s council to try to make a difference.”
Mr Chappell spent more than three decades with the College in various guises, including Treasurer and President, receiving a Lifetime Fellowship in 2008.
"I’m very proud to have been involved in ECOO"
Not one to stand still for too long, Mr Chappell has turned his attention to other optical bodies too, including the General Optical Council. During the deregulation of the sector in the 80s, he was a driving force behind the establishment of Sight Care Trading, the frames arm of the independent opticians group, Sight Care.
He explained: “In the late 80s, when the Government was deregulating like mad, it removed people’s right to a free NHS sight test and consequently the NHS spectacles disappeared. As a result, I established Sight Care Trading with a colleague and worked with the AOP to produce a range of frames to replace the defunct NHS spectacles.”
Still involved with the College at this time, Mr Chappell took on the role as President, which served as a stepping-stone to what he describes as the standout highlight of his career – his involvement in the European Council of Optometry and Optics (ECOO) and the World Council of Optometry.
Initially sitting in ECOO meetings as a representative of the College, he progressed to Chair of the legislation and European diploma management committees, before taking on the role of President in 2004–06. It was his role on the latter committee where Mr Chappell developed a passion for education on an international level, which he still helps to drive forward today.
He explained: “Long before I was a member, ECOO developed the concept of a European qualification in optometry that would work to harmonise optics in Europe.”
The concept has evolved over the years, first with the establishment of its own standards, and then with the development of a diploma. While today its focus is on an accreditation process for universities that wish to offer the diploma, ECOO’s overarching mission remains the same and is still being worked towards.
“I’m very proud to have been involved in ECOO,” Mr Chappell said, admitting that there is still much to be achieved before optometry is harmonised in Europe, but that “great progress has been made and that will remain my focus.”
Mr Chappell’s career is sprinkled with charity work, something that he feels very passionate about. “The profession has given me so much over the years. I have always wanted to give it something back,” he explained.
This charity mindset first manifested itself as a research fund, which Mr Chappell established during his time as Treasurer of the College of Optometrists.
He later used his influence as Master of the Worshipful Company of Spectacles Makers in 2003–04 to help raise more than £47,000 for optometry outreach programmes in Palestine.
He has also served as a trustee to both the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness and Sightsavers.
In 1995, Mr Chappell’s passion for the profession was acknowledged by the wider public when he was awarded an Order of the British Empire for his services to optometry in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. Sharing the moment he learnt of the award, Mr Chappell revealed: “It was both amazing and amusing”, adding that he almost did not open the letter.
He has received a number of accolades since, including being named a Doctor of Science for his contribution to optometry by City University of London in 2001, and the Honour Award from the German Contact Lens Association for “meticulous work for international optometry” in 2008.
Reflecting on being the recipient of the AOP Awards 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award, Mr Chappell said: “It feels absolutely amazing. It was a real surprise, and when I learnt the news, I was absolutely delighted.”