Had Calbert Phillips followed his father into the ministry, the opportunity to play a vital role in the development of a revolutionary eye treatment would have been lost.
As it was, the young son of the manse changed his mind about his original ambition and opted for medicine, later becoming attracted to ophthalmology, a field that led to a eureka moment which contributed to the introduction of eye drops for glaucoma.
Phillips, who graduated MB ChB aged just 21, also was the prime mover in the first mapping of retinal dystrophy to the X chromosome.
The son of the Rev David Phillips and his wife Margaret, he was educated at Glasgow High School and then, when the family moved to Aberdeen just before the outbreak of the Second World War, he attended Robert Gordon’s College.
As he had originally considered becoming a minister, he had studied Latin and Greek rather than Physics and Chemistry and, as a result, his first year at Aberdeen University was not the easiest as he worked to make up ground in natural sciences.
However, he also found time during his studies to freestyle in the swimming and water polo teams.
After graduation he spent a year as a house surgeon at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary before his two years’ National Service intervened and between 1947 and 1949 he was a lieutenant, then captain, in the Royal Army Medial Corps.
A spell at Aberdeen Maternity Hospital followed his demob before he went to Glasgow Eye Infirmary in 1950 – the same year he completed his Diploma in Public Health.
He had been drawn to ophthalmology because of the small scale of the microsurgery combined with its neurological, medical and genetic interest and in 1953 became a resident registrar at Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, then a senior registrar at St Thomas’ Hospital in the English capital. He also held a research post on glaucoma at the Institute of Ophthalmology.
By 1958 he was a consultant surgeon at Bristol Eye Infirmary where he spent five years, interrupted by a year’s travelling fellowship to Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Harvard’s teaching hospital, in Boston, learning about retinal detachments.
In 1962 he also made a surgical visit to the department of ophthalmology in Edinburgh which introduced him to his future wife, registrar Dr Anne Fulton, whom he married that same year.
In 1965, Phillips was appointed to the new Chair in Ophthalmology at the University of Manchester but, in 1972, returned to his beloved Scotland, to the Forbes Chair at Edinburgh University with clinical and surgical duties at the Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion.
Chairman of the European Association for Eye Research in 1975-77, he retired in 1990 having achieved a number of important firsts including: that ocular hypertension could often be explained by small eyes; contributing to the discovery that retinal dystrophy lay within the X chromosome and identifying the ocular hypotensive properties of an early beta-adrenergic blocking drug which eventually led to a pharmaceutical revolution in glaucoma treatment with eye drops.
Steroids raise intra-ocular pressure and so a steroid-blocker should lower it, he reasoned, and his diligent research revealed that a side-effect of mifepristone (the morning after pill) was steroid blockade.
Although the drug reduced intra-ocular pressure in rabbits, Phillips was somewhat sceptical about its conversion to eye-drops for humans as the morning after pill has a much better market. However, the proposition was taken up by a pharmaceutical company and beta-blockers are now the mainstay of eye drop treatment for glaucoma.
Phillips, who had a particular interest in statistics, produced numerous papers, mainly on intra-ocular pressure and glaucoma, retinal detachments, ocular surgery and hereditary diseases, plus two editions of his volume Logic in Medicine.
He was also an enthusiastic sailor, skier, tree-planter and hillwalker, especially fond of Deeside.
He is survived by his wife Anne, their son Andrew, daughter-in-law Doreen and granddaughters Lucy and Chloe.
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