Winner: Professor David Henson
“I’ve never regretted a moment of my career,” is one of the first things that Professor David Henson emphasises when speaking about his 40-plus years in the profession as an academic, researcher and inventor.
“I’ve had a very varied and enjoyable career with the opportunity to work with some amazing people who I have been impressed and inspired by”
Professor David Henson
Set on the pathway into optometry following a conversation with a school careers officer, Professor Henson explains: “When the time came to think about what I wanted to do, the careers officer looked at my academic record to see what I was good at and to see what I was not so good at, and suggested that I look into a career in optometry.”
The road to optometry
Following his own research into the profession, Professor Henson took up that advice, applied to universities that offered ophthalmic optics and enrolled at City, University of London in 1967.
A pre-registration year, which Professor Henson describes as “quite unique,” followed at the Institute of Optometry. “It was a pre-reg post that was combined with a research post and allowed me to be part of a contact lens fitting research project that was run by Janet Stone,” Professor Henson shared.
A year in practice at a north London independent followed, while he continued his role on the research project at the Institute. It was during this time that he caught “the research bug,” and after a year in practice he left the capital to begin a Masters at Aston University in Methods of Ophthalmic Investigation.
Under the guidance of Neville Drasdo, Professor Henson began to explore electrophysiology, in particular looking at using electro-oculograms to understand eye movements in nystagmus.
After completing his Masters, Professor Henson embarked on a PhD in Physiological Optics at the Optometry School of at Indiana University in the US.
Returning to the UK
Completing his PhD in 1976, Professor Henson returned to the UK to take up a lectureship at Cardiff University, an institution that he remained at for 19 years.
Initially lecturing in instruments and visual optics, Professor Henson says: “I’ve always been a person who likes to play and do research in order to seek out answers to why we do things in a particular way and to find out if there is another way to do something in order to improve the delivery of eye care.”
It is this interest, combined with a departmental change, that saw him begin teaching a visual fields module, which in turn led to the development of the first Henson Screener.
“Coinciding with the time that I began teaching the visual fields unit at Cardiff, the department bought its first PC; it really was a time when computers were very new and rare,” he shared.
Playing with the computer, Professor Henson had a light bulb moment when he realised that the tool would be capable of producing “a really good” visual fields test. As a result, the Henson Screener was born.
Light bulb moment
The development of the Henson Screener changed the way visual field tests were performed, Professor Henson explains.
“The revelation that you could programme a computer to flash certain lights and replace the electromechanical perimeters that practitioners were used to was a revolution for the profession,” he said, adding that: “Using a computer also enabled practitioners to produce a common print out that contained all of the information they required and could be understood. Previously, someone who had not done the visual fields test would often struggle to read and understand another person’s test results.”
However, bringing the idea to fruition took time. “We had an idea and a lot of interest from companies, but this fell through,” Professor Henson revealed, before the device was developed in partnership with Tinsley Instruments. Today the Henson Perimeter, which is the most prevalent perimeter in the UK, is made by Elektron Eye Technology.
Professor Henson moved to the University of Manchester in 1996 in order to further develop his research into glaucoma, the second largest cause of blindness in the world.
He explains: “I became more and more interested in glaucoma and how the techniques that we use to screen for it could be improved.”
His post at the university was supported by Manchester Royal Eye Hospital and throughout his 21 years there, Professor Henson’s office and research facilities were located within the hospital in an environment that encouraged translational research.
“For someone who was struggling to do glaucoma research due to access to patients in Cardiff, being within the eye hospital was like heaven,” he said.
Professor Henson’s early work in Manchester focused on clinical trials that evaluated the performance of imaging and visual field technologies for the detection and management of glaucoma. This led to work on the optimisation of visual field tests and the collation of 250,000 visual field tests into a single database that could be queried to answer important questions about the nature of functional loss in glaucoma.
His research, and the initiatives that were put in place as a consequence, reduced the number of patients being referred to the hospital as false positives from 30% to under 10%. “It saved the NHS an absolute fortune, and certainly improved the patient journey,” he said.
Through this work, Professor Henson spearheaded the establishment of referral refinement optometrists in the county, something that has been adopted by many areas across the UK through enhanced services.
“This was established around 15 years ago. It was very successful and is still running today,” he shared.
Professor Henson worked closely with the glaucoma team at the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital until his retirement in December 2016.
During Professor Henson’s career, he has published over 100 papers and published two books. He has supervised 18 PhD students and secured over two million pounds in grants.
Reflecting on his career, Professor Henson said: “I’ve had a very varied and enjoyable career with the opportunity to work with some amazing people who I have been impressed and inspired by due to their level of intellect and dedication to the provision of eye care.”
“I’ve never regretted a single bit of it,” he closed.