During a career spanning over 40 years, Dr Margaret Woodhouse has increased people's understanding of the visual development of children with Down's syndrome, making life-changing research discoveries
With what she describes as a “love of the sciences” throughout her school life, she knew that she wanted a career which combined these subjects with something which also involved working with people. So when the time came to browse university prospectuses, Dr Woodhouse admitted: "Optometry caught my eye and that was that."
Dr Woodhouse graduated from Aston University in 1970, subsequently completing her pre-registration period at Newcastle General Hospital, a placement which she says was ideal for her because of the team working that it involved.
For Dr Woodhouse, a career in academia was always on the cards, admitting with a smile: “I simply never wanted to leave school. I enjoyed working within a large group of people.”
Unsure about where to apply for a PhD, Dr Woodhouse looked into what the then optometry schools across the UK could offer. However, it was a chance conversation with her sister who was living near leafy Cambridge at the time that saw her spend the next three years at the University of Cambridge in the laboratory of well-known vision scientist Professor Fergus Campbell.
"Applying to Cambridge never crossed my mind until that conversation with my sister,” explained Dr Woodhouse, now a senior lecturer at Cardiff University.
However, apply she did, and she got in, adding modestly: "It was a shear stroke of luck really; optometry was a relatively young university subject at that time and therefore had little solid academic background, yet Fergus had an interest in supporting optometry schools and when my CV landed on his desk, he took me on."
Dr Woodhouse spent the next three years under Professor Campbell's guidance, completing a PhD on contrast sensitivity, graduating as the first optometrist to gain a PhD outside of ‘ophthalmic optics’ as the discipline was in those days.
Speaking about her time at Cambridge, Dr Woodhouse said: “The grounding that I got there was phenomenal. There were so many famous scientists, and to actually meet and rub shoulders with people whose names had cropped up in my lectures at university was absolutely outstanding."
Making the leap into full-time academia after completing her PhD, Dr Woodhouse admitted that it was Professor Campbell who initiated her journey to Cardiff, where she secured a lectureship in 1974. "I came into the lab in Cambridge one morning towards the end of my PhD and Fergus had left an advert for an optometry lectureship at Cardiff University on my desk," she laughed, adding: "I took the hint, applied and got the job.”
Dr Woodhouse has spent the last 41 years in the School of Optometry and Vision Sciences at Cardiff University, where she has become well-known for her research into the visual requirements of children with learning disabilities, much of which has been pivotal to our understanding today.
Sharing details of how her research began, Dr Woodhouse explained that it happened by chance when she was working with two post-doctoral research colleagues who were interested in amblyopia and squint.
The researchers were hindered in their work because of the lack of history which could be gleaned from the adult subjects they were testing. Taking action, together with Dr Woodhouse they established a children's clinic at the university, securing publicity in the local press in order to attract patients.
However, "no typical little children showed up because they were being treated well at the hospital," explained Dr Woodhouse. "Yet who did turn up were children and adults with learning disabilities."
Discussing this time, the optometrist said: "They turned up and we had no more idea of what to do than anyone else. Therefore it was an enormous learning curve. There wasn't much in the literature, so mainly we learnt as we went along."
Since then, Dr Woodhouse and her team have been studying the visual development in a group of more than 250 children and young people with Down’s syndrome for over 20 years. Today, patients attend the clinic from all over the world, including Nigeria, Gibraltar, France and Switzerland.
During her career, Dr Woodhouse has jointly developed a number of tests which are used in practice today to aid with the vision testing of this cohort of patients. These include the Cardiff Acuity Test, the Cardiff Contrast Test and the Cardiff Near Test. "They were developed out of necessity and curiosity as suitable tests and techniques that allowed us to examine these children and adults with disabilities simply didn't exist at the time," she said.
One of the group's most important findings is that vision is worse in children with Down’s syndrome than in typical children of the same age, and it remains worse even when the children have glasses – therefore, parents and schools need to be aware of that and make modifications to the learning environment. Another is that their accommodation is poor and that bifocals are of benefit to them.
By royal appointment
In June last year, Dr Woodhouse’s research achievements were recognised beyond her patients and the profession when she was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s birthday honours list. She was recognised for services to optometry and for services to people with disabilities.
Sharing the moment she learnt the news, a few weeks prior to the official honours list being announced, Dr Woodhouse revealed: "I received a letter written in very official wording which informed me of the award. I stood on my lawn and read it over and over and couldn't believe it. I kept looking at the name on it thinking that it had been put in my postbox by mistake and it belonged to someone down the road."
"I was gobsmacked and absolutely over the moon," she added, describing the day which she received the award from Prince William as "magical."
Dr Woodhouse acknowledges that enormous strides have been made in the knowledge and care of people with learning disabilities. "When I think about what was happening 25 years ago, society has come on enormously. We (optometrists) have been part of an improvement in the care of people with disabilities in all aspects of their life; their vision, their education, their quality of life, and much more," she explained.
While she is proud to have been part of, and contributed to, this change, there is still much action needed. She stressed: "I want to see the eye care services for children in special schools launched in Wales and the other three nations, and I want to see the issues of children with disabilities being diagnosed with keratoconus resolved through the establishment of a screening programme.”
"I want the day to come when parents of children with Down's syndrome don't have to come from the other end of the country to my clinic," she concluded. "It's lovely that they do, but for every parent who does come, there must be 10 that can't. I want to see children with disabilities from all over the UK receiving proper eye care in their own communities."