Brien Holden remembered

The profession remembers a global leader in eye care and vision research, Professor Brien Holden, who died last month

26 Aug 2015 by Emily McCormick

It would be difficult to find a person in the profession who does not know the name Professor Brien Holden.

It would be difficult to find a person in the profession who does not know the name Professor Brien Holden. Committed and passionate to the profession in which he practised, Professor Holden’s contributions extended across research, education and public health. 

Once described as “the most influential optometrist of our generation,” during a career that spanned more than 50 years, Professor Holden received over 30 national and international awards from organisations around the world for his contributions to research, eye care and health. He delivered over 90 keynote addresses, authored more than 220 papers, 26 book chapters and 380 abstracts.

Professor Holden’s contributions were many, to say the least, and in 1997 he was recognised with an Order of Australia Medal for his “outstanding contributions to eye care research and education.” 
Other accolades include the Schwab Social Entrepreneur Award for Africa, as well as seven honorary doctorates from universities in the UK, US, Canada and South Africa.

Passionate about access to eye care being available to all around the world, Professor Holden’s research interests focused on ocular health and vision with all forms of vision correction, including contact lenses and surgery. 

During his career he was a driving force behind the development of a number of key industry changing products, perhaps most notably, the establishment of a new generation of soft lenses to correct astigmatism. He was also the co-developer of highly oxygen permeable silicone hydrogel lenses with CIBA Vision which have revolutionised the contact lens market.

Without a doubt, contact lens wearers around the world have benefited from his contributions. 


Professor Holden graduated with a degree in optometry from Melbourne University in 1964, shortly after which he boarded a boat to the UK to continue his career in optics. 

During this journey, Professor Holden witnessed the poverty which existed in many parts of the world where the boat stopped, including ports in New Guinea and Sri Lanka.

The observations Professor Holden made during that first trip stayed with him throughout his career and he was always committed to engaging the optometric profession to increase its efforts to help those in need of vision correction. 

Completing his PhD in corneal and contact research at City University London in 1971, Professor Holden returned to his native country for a position as lecturer in optometry at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney. 

In this role, the optometrist led a research group that developed an expertise in contact lenses, which at the time were a very new modality of vision correction. By 1973, Professor Holden, alongside a number of postgraduate students, had begun research which sought to determine what was required of contact lenses to maintain eye health. This group attracted the interest of other researchers and expanded beyond understanding the effects of contact lenses on the cornea, to include all aspects of contact lenses.

In 1976, Professor Holden established the Cornea and Contact Lens Research Unit (CCLRU) within the University of South Wales, which was subsequently responsible for a large growth in research activity at the institution. 

By the time the unit was formally established, it had grown to over 30 people and went on to make significant contributions to the world of contact lenses.

The success of the CCLRU spurred Professor Holden on to set new challenges. Observing the need for an independent, but university affiliated institute to promote and develop eye research and education, in 1985, Professor Holden helped establish the Institute for Eye Research, a non-profit approved research institute, which is today known as the Brien Holden Vision Institute.

Today the institute, which has educated over 180 PhD students, and raised over $1.3bn in research, education and humanitarian funds, is the largest and most productive vision research centre in the world.

Throughout his career, Professor Holden was passionate about contributing to initiatives to address avoidable blindness and vision impairment, both in Australia and globally. 

In 1992, along with colleagues Brian Layland, David Pye, Debbie Sweeney and Frank Back, he created VisionCare NSW, which until 2014 managed the New South Wales government spectacle program, delivering subsidised eye care to those in need. VisionCare NSW supplied over one million pairs of spectacles to financially disadvantaged people in New South Wales. 

Looking further afield, in 1998 Professor Holden co-founded the International Centre for Eyecare Education, now known as the Brien Holden Vision Institute, Public Health. Under this guise, the institute has delivered eye care services to more than three million people in 54 countries, established over 400 vision centres or sites for eye care worldwide, and trained over 130,000 personnel around the world.

The profession comments

“I am deeply, deeply saddened by the loss of Brien Holden, a man I and so many knew as an esteemed colleague and as a friend. Brien was the first person to ever invite me to speak at an international conference and I have always considered him responsible for any professional contributions I made thereafter to my worldwide colleagues. 

“We should all celebrate Brien’s life and thank him for what he gave us all through his research and his global accomplishments for the welfare of humanity through his love of the profession, of people and the joy of living life to its fullest. I’ll miss you mate.”
Lou Catania, senior consultant for Nicolitz Eye Consultants    

“Ever since I can remember, you have been influencing me, the BCLA and all of the contact lens world in so many ways.

“Now you have left, your influence will continue I know. Your legacy will be to have inspired so many people, to have engineered vision in so many people and to have left a team capable of continuing your dreams.”
Brian Tompkins, optometrist and president of the BCLA

“We were all deeply saddened by the passing of Professor Brien Holden. Brien and I first met almost 50 years ago when we were post-graduate students at City University London, and it has been a privilege and pleasure to work with him. Brien was the driving force behind getting global recognition from the World Health Organization for uncorrected refractive error, and his humanitarian passion resulted in the establishment of Optometry Giving Sight (OGS) to raise funds globally to address the provision of an eye examination and a pair of spectacles for every one who needs them. 

“OGS was established in the UK in 2003. As the second market for the charity to enter after Australia, the UK always had a special place in Brien’s heart and he served on the UK board for a number of years. Brien provided the inspiration and leadership which has helped take the charity to where it is today. We are eternally thankful to Brien for everything he has helped create for the profession and for mankind, and we feel very proud to be wholly committed to continuing to realise Brien’s dream of Vision for Everyone...Everywhere.” 
Robert Chappell, chair of Optometry Giving Sight UK
“Brien was a tremendously important person in the field of vision correction. His tireless commitment and service to mankind directly helped millions of patients who benefited from his efforts. 
“Brien recently visited J&J’s campus in Jacksonville, Florida where he gave an emotional and inspiring account of the global needs in myopia control. His energy and dedication were very much alive and profound, and felt by all J&J employees who had the great fortune to be in attendance. We hope that Brien’s legacy of research and societal compassion will continue at the BHVI and other organisations which benefited from Brien’s efforts.

“Brien’s lifelong dedication and contributions to vision correction will be missed.”
Ashley McEvoy, Johnson & Johnson Vision Care company group chairman

“I cried today – but I also smiled because I cherish my good fortune of having met and learned from, worked with, taught with, socialised and partied with, and travelled to many countries with one of the most passionate, intensely spirited, energising, fun loving, seriously minded, amazingly learned, progressive and effective optometric educators and men of a lifetime, Professor Brien Holden.  

“As a student, meeting him was like meeting Superman – my hero. But working with him at the UNSW and International Contact Lens Educators was an unbelievable dream come true. He was my mentor, a friend, and he changed my life. Brien made everyone feel special. He had a gift of knowing everyone and everyone mattered to him. Brien had grandiose ideas and had the fighting spirit to bring his dreams to fruition; an incredible visionary for which everything was possible. 

“I never met a more encouraging, contagiously energising human being who had the same passion when educating the world as he had with his love for a good night out with food, drink, tons of laughter and conversation. 

“Brien was a big teddy bear and my favorite Aussie. He will be sorely missed and I know he is sharing all his new project ideas with his helpers in the heavens above. Rest peacefully Brien, know we have learned well from you and practice what you shared with us all on many levels. Forever in my thoughts and prayers.  
Jil Klein, former director of Clinical teaching and contact lens education at the UNSW  

“We should all celebrate Bein’s life and thank him for what he gave us all.”


Readers wishing to send their condolences are advised to email the Brien Holden Vision Institute on 
Donations will be directed by the Brien Holden Vision Institute to support the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council, for the Aboriginal Health College. An educational institution based in Sydney, the College provides culturally appropriate accredited education courses in aboriginal health and associated disciplines.


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