Obituary: Iain Fraser. Lawyer and charity founder

Born: 19 December, 1926, in Glasgow. Died: 11 April, 2016, in Aberdeen, aged 89

Lawyer and charity founder. Picture: Contributed
Lawyer and charity founder. Picture: Contributed
Lawyer and charity founder. Picture: Contributed

Iain Fraser was a lawyer who turned a potentially disastrous incident into a force for good, championing the work of eye specialists and helping countless people around the world afflicted by blinding diseases.

As a young man he himself had not enjoyed good eyesight – the reason he was not called up to serve his country – and his vision deteriorated firstly when he suffered a detached retina during his student rugby-playing days and later as a result of a cataract, leaving him with useful vision in only one eye.

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But when, in his late 50s, he was assaulted at a licensed trade function, he truly understood the devastating effects of sight loss. The eyeball of his good eye was so badly damaged in the attack that it left him blinded and the eminent ophthalmologist who operated on him believed the prognosis was hopeless.

The surgery had been particularly complex and was compounded by the fact that Fraser then developed a severe infection in the eye, a complication that normally results in certain and total blindness. For several weeks he had no useful sight. However three months after the incident he suddenly began to be able to identify colours and, thanks to the skill of his consultant on the night of the assault, John Forrester, now an Emeritus Professor, a degree of vision returned.

Slowly his eye improved, returning to a healthy condition which enabled him to get around, read small print, watch television, follow Aberdeen Football Club and even whack a few golf balls.

As a mark of gratitude he vowed to repay Prof Forrester and his first gesture was to send the eye specialist a side of beef and a crate of champagne. He later realised that what would really be appreciated was support for the eye research laboratory the professor was trying to establish at Aberdeen University. And so a few years after the injury Fraser rallied support to set up a charity, Saving Sight In Grampian (SSIG). He thought they might raise about £10,000. To date the total stands are more than £3.5 million and it supports scientists involved in world-leading research into eye disease, benefiting patients locally and around the globe.

Iain Fraser was born in Glasgow’s Maryhill, to tramway clerk Donald Fraser and his wife Christine. Raised an only child, after his little brother died in infancy, he was educated at Maryhill Primary and then Glasgow High School. During the Second World War, when German bombers blitzed Glasgow and the Clyde in 1941, he was evacuated to live with his maternal grandparents near Inverness.

On completing his schooling he went to Glasgow University to read law and was taken on as an apprentice by local solicitors Holmes Mackillop, becoming an assistant there before joining Tindall, Oatts & Rodger in 1952.

A couple of years later he moved to Aberdeen as a legal assistant with Paull & Williamson solicitors where he eventually became a senior partner. His specialism in residential property earned him the nickname “Houses of Fraser”.

The assault that so badly damaged his eyesight took place in Aberdeen in November 1985 and he decided that, once he could see again, he would do his Masters with a thesis on liquor licensing. He would later be awarded honorary degrees of Master of the University and Doctor of Laws by Aberdeen University in recognition of his charity work.

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He remained as a partner in the legal firm until 1987 and then worked with them as a consultant for a further ten years. However, he had begun fundraising shortly after retiring as partner and founded the Saving Sight In Grampian charity in the late 1980s, along with a committee of friends, whom he had subjected to his considerable powers of persuasion, plus sponsorship from A C Yule & Son and the John Clark Motor Group.

He linked the charity to Aberdeen University’s Development Trust which had been set up to inaugurate the Sir Andrew and Lady Lewis Department of Opthalmology and the Cockburn Chair of Opthalmology, to which Prof Forrester had been appointed in 1984.

A big fundraising push in 1994 brought in £100,000 and allowed the eye research laboratory to expand, with the new facilities opened by Princess Alexandra in 1997.

As the work of the lab increased so too did the staff numbers, which reached 30, and even more space was needed. In 2002 the SSIG lab moved to the University of Aberdeen’s new Institute of Medical Sciences (IMS) and enjoyed another Royal visit a few years later when Anne, the Princess Royal, saw its work. Then in 2009 the Countess of Wessex toured the laboratories and retained her cool when she and the reception party got stuck in the lift between floors.

At the time Fraser highlighted the exciting and innovative research being carried, stressing that the sole function and purpose of the charity’s fundraising efforts had been to support Prof Forrester and his team of researchers. He also spoke of his pride in being able to fund so many projects, many of which not only benefited local people but also patients worldwide, in the diagnoses and treatment of eye disease.

They included the first reporting of the success of a new drug for the treatment of uveitis, a sight-threatening inflammation of the eye. The laboratory has also made a range of fundamental discoveries in corneal transplantation, herpes infection of the eye, age-related macular degeneration, diabetes and regeneration of the lens.

And, because the SSIG had been integrated with the IMS, the lawyer’s fundraising activities extended beyond support for eye research to other medical research, resulting in the setting up of the Institute’s Flow Cytometry Centre. Named in his honour in 2014, the centre and supports researchers working in areas including both cell and cancer biology and immunology.

He also channeled his energies into improving support services for the visually impaired. He was chairman of the Grampian Society for the Blind, now known as North East Sensory Services and housed in a building which he found by tramping the streets of Aberdeen city centre in search of a suitable site. It has since been renamed as the Iain Fraser Resource Centre.

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A genuine people person and a gregarious man of determined character, it suited him to be relentlessly busy and he was also an accomplished fiddler and active member and president of Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society whose performances raised much for Saving Sight.

Previously married and divorced, he is survived by his second wife Allie, whom he married in 1973, four step-children Neil, John, Susie and Ross, and three grandchildren.