Obituary: Emeritus Professor Barry Cole AO

Described as an influential, charismatic and visionary leader in optometry, Professor Cole died on 27 January 2021

Barry Cole

Emeritus Professor Barry Cole AO, described as a “visionary” for the role of optometry, and made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1987, died on 27 January 2021.

Announcing the news, the Australian College of Optometry (ACO) suggested Professor Cole’s contribution to optometry in his home state of Victoria, and around the world, “cannot be overestimated.” 

Professor Cole is credited with having inspired and taught many optometrists and played leading roles in optometry education as the ACO’s first full-time lecturer in 1959.

The College shared that he helped to establish the degree course in the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of Melbourne. In 1962 the ACO became affiliated with the university and Professor Cole was appointed director of studies at the College in 1965. He was later appointed chairman of the department of optometry at Melbourne, on its establishment in 1973.

Professor Cole played a role in establishing the National Vision Research Institute in 1972, where he was acting director until 1977, the College noted, and also, along with Gerard Crock, established the Low Vision Clinic at Kooyong for the Association for the Blind – now known as Vision Australia.

Optometrist, Professor Nicholas Rumney, managing director of BBR Optometry, and who completed a master’s degree in Melbourne between 1982 and 1986, pays tribute to his friend and mentor.

“In 1981 I first made contact with Barry, looking to fulfil a lifelong ambition to travel to Australia. I wanted to return with tangible professional development,” Professor Rumney said.

He continued: “Barry was charismatic and responded immediately. He recognised motivation over ambition but had a unique skill in recognising potential and merging these three attributes. If you were clinical, he’d see that you developed that aspect without losing scientific rigour, and if a research academic, that you would not forget the roots of your discipline.”

“I returned to the UK in 1985, after a hugely influential three years,” Professor Rumney said. He explained that this experience led him to advocate for a multidisciplinary approach to low vision in the UK, and encouraged him to campaign for optometric continuing education, particularly in therapeutics.

“Barry’s principal skill was that of a visionary for the role of the profession of optometry, which would have a solid research base underpinning a clinically diverse and politically astute role. He delegated magnificently. He taught us not to be ring-fenced or constrained by the status quo, or somehow inferior to ophthalmology, something he felt particularly applied to UK optometry in the 70s and 80s,” Professor Rumney shared.

Professor Cole inspired and taught many leaders in optometry over four decades, Professor Rumney noted, including Professors Tony Adams, Ian Bailey, Brian Brown, Brien Holden, Leon Garner, Donald Mitchell, Robert Hess and Nathan Efron in academia, as well as students who became leaders working in industry, such as Dr Noel Brennan and Dr Carol Lakkis, with optometric associations and regulatory bodies.

Professor Rumney reflected: “There is no doubt that world optometry, let alone Australian optometry, would not be punching so far above its weight were it not for Barry and I feel sure that without his influence, UK optometry would have struggled to achieve legislation in therapeutics, that 15 years on remains controversial for some.”

“More than anything else I remember Barry as a friend and mentor. I endeavoured to visit him whenever I was in Melbourne and was always honoured to be greeted as an honorary Australian stirring up those ‘Poms’,” Professor Rumney said. He added: “He took a genuine interest in people and had a remarkable memory. If I knew then what I know now I'd have spent even more time with him.”

Professor Rumney concluded: “Isaac Newton once said he was where he was because he had stood on the shoulders of giants, I and countless others echo that phrase.”

A detailed biography of Professor Cole is available online.