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January 23, 2004

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Sir John Wilson

Philanthropist and Visionary

He was blind but he had great vision. This was to fight not only preventable blindness but disability in general all over the world. Sir John Wilson who passed away in his sleep in the early hours of November 24, 1999, is remembered all over the world for his commitment to the poor and the neglected. Through Impact Foundation in Bangladesh, of which he was a founder, Sir John Wilson helped to set up a boat hospital called Jibon Tari that could reach the remotest of areas in Bangladesh. Equipped with the latest technology and an army of specialist doctors and nurses, this hospital has been a blessing for hundreds of people whose lives had been plagued by disability. Sir John believed that over the years, such a boat could change the whole pattern of disability amongst the people in the waterways. And he proved to be right.

It was in 1993 that he founded IMPACT Foundation Bangladesh (IFB) which is a Charitable Trust and a non-governmental organisation working in the country as a part of global IMPACT movement. The mandate of this organisation, which is run by Mansur Chouduri, a Bangladeshi who had been blinded by a childhood accident, is to achieve sustainable and affordable change in the pattern of disability through efforts to prevent avoidable disablement. Besides the common mandate, the organisation is always searching to find-out the reasons behind disability and trying find new ways to prevent avoidable disablement.

Sir John Wilson School in Gulshan was founded in 1995 with just 9 students. It now has 470. Its aim is to give quality English medium education and to generate funds for the local branch of IMPACT. This aspires to fulfill the vision of Sir John through two main projects Jibon Tari and Chaudunga. Jibon Tari is a floating Hospital which travels to the remote areas of the country, giving opportunities for medical treatment and surgery to some of the most disadvantaged of our population. Chaudunga is a clinic with a wide outreach programme, which not only offers medical care and surgery but also education in basic hygiene, childcare and nutrition and so endeavours to prevent disability brought about through poor diet. The school's principal, other staff and children make it a point to remember Sir John Wilson whose birthday was celebrated on January 20. During a school assembly, surrounded by balloons, students talked about the work of Sir John and then watched as a giant birthday cake was cut into enough pieces for everyone.

Born on January 20, 1919, in Scarborough, England Sir John Wilson was blinded by a Bunsen burner explosion in a school chemistry lab at the age of twelve. Yet his determination to overcome his disability led him to continue his education by learning Braille and winning a scholarship to Oxford where he gained degrees in Law and Sociology. He turned his back on the rarefied college atmosphere where he could have been a professor and became involved in working for the rehabilitation and employment of the Blind. Later, he travelled extensively, setting up organisations for the Blind in some 30 Commonwealth Countries. He initiated many activities to prevent blindness such as a programme whereby over 200,000 cataract operations were performed annually in India. His recognition across the globe drew international respect and he was able to play a key role in the establishment of the International Initiative against Avoidable Disablement, now known as the IMPACT programme. In 1941 he worked as assistant secretary of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, where he helped blind people find employment.

In 1946 Sir John and his wife Jean went on a fact-finding mission to colonies in the British Empire in order to assess the situation of blind people. He found an overwhelming need for education and rehabilitation services which was met by the establishment of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind in 1950. Sir John Wilson was the founder, in 1947, and first President of the National Federation of the Blind of the United Kingdom.

Sir John was the Society's Director until his retirement in 1983. During his tenure he established education and rehabilitation programmes for the blind in more than thirty countries.

He pioneered the concept of prevention of avoidable blindness and other disabilities in Indian villages of Cataract Camps, which could perform more than 100 cataract operations in a day. He and his wife lived for a year in the villages of the blind in Ghana. He championed the prevention of river blindness by use of the drug Mectizan or Invermectin. This drug prevented many millions of people from losing their sight from the bite of a deadly fly.

Sir John received many honours during his lifetime. In 1975 Queen Elizabeth knighted him as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE). In 1993 he received the Albert Schweitzer International Prize for medicine. Until his death he served as a consultant to the Secretary General of the United Nations on disability matters. During his working life he travelled 50,000 to 100,000 miles a year to maintain hands-on contact with blind people around the world. He always believed that people came first and should receive help one at a time.

From the SWM Desk


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