Obituary: Dr Anne Silk

Dispensing optician and past Master of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers, Dr Anne Silk, died in November last year

Anne Silk

OT is sad to report the death of the first female Master of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers, Dr Anne Silk, who died on 30 November, shortly before her 91st birthday.

Writing about Anne, the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers shared: “Anne Silk was rightly proud of her progression within the company at a time when Livery Company Masters and Wardens were assumed to be men. She was only the fourth woman in the City to become Master of a Livery Company and the only female appointed in her year of office, 1990–1991. She was delighted when a senior member of staff at the Mansion House told her that she was the first woman in history to have presided at two City ceremonial dinners involving royalty – in the 1970s at the Guildhall as president of the Association of Dispensing Opticians, and in 1991 when the principal guest at her Mansion House Livery Dinner was His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester.

“Anne wanted respect to be afforded equally in professional circles, on the basis of merit and knowledge. She advised others to follow her example in operating to the best of their ability without fuss. She believed there was no need to distinguish women from men in leadership settings. She was eloquent and authoritative when speaking in public, always demonstrating absolute command of her subject.

“Anne showed exceptional ability as a child, but circumstances meant that going to university was not possible. She went into advertising, working for Selfridges, but really wanted a rewarding, lifelong career. Consequently, she started training as a dispensing optician and progressed rapidly, becoming a member, and ultimately president, of the Association of Dispensing Opticians from 1971–74, the first woman to take that position.

“Anne turned her attention from spectacles to contact lenses and became a director of one of only four companies dispensing lenses at that time. She was trained by Dr Josef Dallos, the ophthalmologist who brought contact lenses to the UK from Hungary in 1937, with his brother-in-law, George Nissel. In the mid-1970s Anne set up her own practice with consulting rooms in Wimpole Street and from this base she developed an international contact lens consultancy.

“This was the point when Anne started to become absorbed by the links between eye conditions, brain function and the external environment. She was in the forefront of research to find links between prolonged exposure to cathode ray tubes (a principal feature of early computer screens), eye conditions and persistent migraines. Although many of her UK contemporaries initially dismissed her ideas, she discovered that researchers in the US were asking similar questions. She worked very closely with the late Liveryman, Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, a world-renowned neurobiologist, and latterly with Professor Colin Pritchard, at Bournemouth University, on the incidence of brain disease-related mortality.

“Her scientific interests inevitably expanded her network and she developed strong working relationships right across the optical sector, government and medical professional bodies.

“When Anne retired from her optical practice to pursue her research agenda, she began a second career in neuroscience, producing numerous discussion papers and supporting innovative research. She made her mark through publications and conference papers and her work subsequently took her further into studies of the impact of radiation and magnetic fields on brain function, and the links between environmental factors, epidemiology and long term and degenerative conditions, including epilepsy and motor neurone disease.

“She took great pride in her election as a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and she was delighted in 2014 to be awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Science by Bournemouth University, with whom she worked closely in recent years. She sat on the General Optical Council, was a member of the Institute of Physics and of the US Bio-electromagnetics Society and took on roles on national committees looking at brain disease. She was a member of the Department of Health SAGE II Science Forum and was co-opted onto the UK’s Health Protection Agency.

“Anne was still writing research papers and inspiring PhD students well into her late eighties. After one meeting with a young female author she wrote in an email: “There is so much that people don’t know about my research so it is good to talk about my experiences and help them understand that scholarship is so worthwhile. Just imagine, my published papers (on EMFs (electromagnetic fields), magnetism and human effects) have been read by 9382 academics worldwide. Not bad for an elderly woman.”

“Anne Silk was no ordinary woman. She takes her place in the Company’s history as the first woman Master in more than 360 years, a pioneer and a formidable presence in optics.”