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01 January 2013, at 12:00am

JOHN BONNER catches up with Peter Bedford, Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Ophthalmology at the RVC and a former president of the BSAVA, who has taken on new roles in ‘retirement’

WORK/don’t work: retirement offers one of the few simple binary choices that most people will face during their careers.

Turn one way, down the path marked “pipe and slippers”, and the retiree walks away from those activities that have occupied his or her mind and body for the past four or five decades. Turn the other way, and it is a rejuvenated career focused on those things that he or she has enjoyed most, freed from all the more tedious aspects of a staff job.

For those who know Peter Bedford, it comes as no surprise that he should have chosen the latter course, not once but twice.

The man who pioneered the London veterinary school’s research and clinical services in veterinary ophthalmology officially retired from the RVC in 2004 after more than 40 years as an undergraduate, junior lecturer and professor. But he was back the next month and then ran the ophthalmology service at the Queen Mother Hospital for another six years.

After finally breaking away in 2010, he has continued working at private referral clinics in St Albans and central London, and helped run the BVA canine health schemes, but his eyes have increasingly focused on fostering the professional development of colleagues abroad.

International lecturer

In recent months he has lectured at veterinary meetings across the globe, including Bulgaria, Russia, Peru, Brazil and China. Next March he will travel to New Zealand for a meeting of the International Society of Veterinary Ophthalmology, of which he is the current president.

“I have always enjoyed teaching and in taking on these tasks, I know that I can contribute to something that is worthwhile,” he says.

The son of a North Riding pig farmer, Peter had always wanted to be a vet and fulfilled that ambition when he qualified from the RVC in 1967. He stayed on for three years as a house surgeon at the Beaumont clinic in Camden Town where he developed his interest in eye surgery.

With no immediate prospect of a staff job he went off for a year in industry before returning to take up a four-year postgraduate research post under the great Clifford Formston, looking at the aetiology of canine glaucoma.

A junior lecture post came up next, although the idea of specialising in small animal ophthalmology wasn’t a realistic prospect at that stage. “I was employed to do head and neck surgery in all species. So I could be knocking out the cheek teeth on a horse in the morning and doing cataract surgery in a dog in the afternoon.”

But with growing numbers of ophthalmology referral cases arriving at his door, the school soon accepted the case for a clinical specialist in that field. Although he has played a huge role in the development of his discipline, he cheerfully acknowledges that Keith Barnett at the Animal Health Trust was the first UK vet to be able to claim that title.

Peter’s fellow Yorkshireman was around 10 years older and like most scions of that county, he did enjoy a good argument. “Yes, you can say that we had a few disagreements over the years but we also did some good work together and remained great friends right up until Keith’s sad death in 2009.” 

The RVC was the first UK school to offer a residency post and over the years Peter has been the supervisor for eight students undertaking PhDs in veterinary ophthalmology. The first of these was Simon Petersen Jones, now professor of comparative ophthalmology at Michigan State University and for Peter, it is one of the pleasures of an academic career to see his former students go on to great things. 

With his colleagues, Peter has also watched and learned from developments in human medicine. He believes that the major contribution he has made to veterinary medicine is his work in helping to develop surgical techniques for the treatment of primary glaucoma in the dog. Similar methods had already been used for many years in human hospitals but it was not a simple matter to apply that knowledge in the veterinary sphere.

“Glaucoma in dogs and humans are very different diseases. The aetiology of the most common condition in people is one that produces a slow progressive condition. In the most common form in dogs you get a very sudden closure of the drainage mechanism from the eye, the animal will be fine one day but blind and in considerable pain the next.”

Although the use of surgical implants provides an alternative route for draining aqueous humour from the eye, it rarely provides a permanent solution. “Unfortunately, the aqueous humour is a great attractor of fibroblast activity and within one, maybe two, years the implant will become wrapped in fibrous tissue and so we have to do another procedure.

“I learned to do phacoemulsification for cataract surgery from human medical colleagues. But if they had to deal with the same problems we face in canine patients they would have given up attempts to make it work – the dog’s eye is so much more reactive.”


Peter has also contributed to the research effort towards a number of other inherited ocular conditions in dogs. He joined the Kennel Club as a way to get closer to the breeders of the affected animals and can count a number of successes in helping to improve the ocular health of particular breeds.

But he cannot persuade breeders to take appropriate action if some are unwilling to attend meetings to discuss the health of the dogs. He also regrets that he has been unable to talk the Kennel Club into introducing a policy in those breeds where suitable genetic tests are available, to only register puppies whose parents have been tested.

Over his career Peter has seen veterinary ophthalmology develop into a mature clinical discipline in the UK and over much of the rest of Europe. So he is keen to encourage the same growth in the science throughout the world.

The ISVO was originally formed 30 years ago and after a first flush of enthusiasm, it then went into a period of relative inactivity. But now, with an energetic committee behind it, the organisation has grown to the point where it has nearly 1,000 members worldwide and regional bodies have been established in centres of rapid growth like East Asia.

As president of the international society, Peter has supported initiatives intended to encourage further growth in the specialism. “We have our own journal, The Globe, which contains material such as abstracts from meetings around the world and which is now published three times a year. We are also introducing a travel scholarship for the first time at the meeting in New Zealand.

“It is very important that colleagues in developing countries are able to travel to countries like the UK to improve their skills. If we can continue to maintain this momentum, then the future of veterinary ophthalmology will look very healthy.”