Opening Hours: 10am to 4pm, Wednesday to Saturday. 1pm to 4pm Sundays. FREE Admission

The Forgotten Story of Benjamin Rycroft

Whilst many people are familiar with the work of Archibald McIndoe within the field of plastic surgery, few people are aware of part that East Grinstead plays within the history of eye surgery, especially with the setting up of eye banks.

Rycroft Arrives

The most important person behind this story was Sir Benjamin Rycroft, who worked at the Queen Victoria Hospital after the end of the Second World War. Rycroft was born in 1902, and trained as an ophthalmologist (a doctor who specialises in working with the eyes). When war broke out in 1939, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving as an adviser in ophthalmology to the Army in both North Africa and Italy.  For his work during the war he was awarded an O.B.E.A framed black and white photograph of Sir Benjamin Rycroft, an older gentleman in a dark suit with his hands crossed

By 1949, Rycroft started working in a new Corneo-Plastic Department at the Hospital, which was set up with ten beds and an Ophthalmic Sister to assist with his work. Despite the increased publicity for his work, Rycroft was affected by a lack of donors for any procedures largely due to restrictive laws on the donation of body parts for medical purposes. These laws placed the decision for donation with the person’s next of kin, ignoring the donor’s wishes, as in law, the dead body has no property.

The beginnings of the Campaign

On 11th December 1951, a meeting was held at the hospital, which included local politicians from both major parties. to hear Rycroft and Sir Archibald McIndoe talk about the need for donor eyes for the unit. Rycroft was quoted as saying “We have all the facilities we require here at this hospital, but there remains a problem of donor eyes; our list grows week by week”. Immediately after the meeting, a campaign designed to raise awareness and change law was launched. Named the “Sight for the Blind” Campaign, it worked with the Women’s Voluntary Service to distribute forms to people who wanted to have their eyes for corneal grafting. Anyone who signed up received a card signed by McIndoe.A typed card, which has red writing on it. It was created for the Sight for the Blind Campaign and is signed by Sir Archibald McIndoe

The Campaign’s Success

The publicity from the meeting, and the campaign led to the creation of a private members bill in Parliament in May 1952, and by September it had become law. This removed much of the legal problems for people wishing to donate their eyes for medical reasons. It also set up Eye Banks to help store and use these donated eyes, and the first was set up at the Queen Victoria Hospital. In fact, it is widely remembered by Hospital staff that a train carriage, containing the donated eyes used to arrive in East Grinstead Station and were taken by taxi to the Hospital.

Rycroft was knighted for his work in 1960, but he passed away in 1967.

This story was told using research from the Museum’s collections. To see more of the collections, and to find out more forgotten stories, please visit our online collections.

Comments(5)

  1. REPLY
    Mike edwards says

    Truly a forgotten story and one which is deservedly given profile here. East Grinstead has reason to be proud of its history as a centre of medical innovation.

    • REPLY
      Rodney Rycroft says

      I was delighted when my daughter-in-law sent me this story about my late father,Sir Benjamin Rycroft . Although i visited the hospital with him many times years
      ago I regret I did not know there is a museum there,in which he rightly features. My father, brilliantly talented though he was ,was also very modest and never sought the limelight or publicity for himself. He was extremely kind to everyone and a loving and wonderful father and I miss him greatly and always will.
      I well remember our trips down to East Grinstead on Christmas Days when he would take the family to help feed the blind patients who were too ill to go home.
      The nurses had decorated the wards with lots of colourful Christmas things and we would try to describe it all for the patients,while my father visited every one throughout his wards,usually accompanied by the very special Sister King,who had also been his theatre Sister during the war. They were a great working team.
      Father had a great sense of humour fun to be with and a superb friend and companion. Sadly,he died far too young (64) when he still had so much to contribute
      and so much good work still to accomplish. He was dedicated to his patients and to his family and i am so pleased that his memory lives on at the Museum.

      It should also be remembered that my brother Peter was a very skilled eye surgeon who worked and operated with my father and another surgeon,Abe Werb, at
      East Grinstead,Moorfields and the London Clinic. My brother was also very much involved with the Eye Bank Project,which he helped to set up with our father.
      Tragically he died in a mysterious motoring accident on the M4 a year after my father passed away and just before he was due to take over father’s practice.
      A second great loss for their patients and another successful career cut short when they had so much more to offer and discover.
      I often wished that I had had the brains and skills they possessed and followed in their footsteps,but a great lady once told me “My advice would be to do something
      different,make your own way, otherwise,as a surgeon, you will always be your father’s son !” Still,that didn’t seem such a bad thing to be and I’m very proud that I am.

      Rodney Rycroft (83) 29th August 2018 ( My father was born in August)

  2. REPLY
    John Briggs says

    Does anyone know who Benjamin Rycrofts nurse was please ?

  3. REPLY
    Rodney Rycroft says

    I was delighted when my daughter-in-law sent me this story about my late father,Sir Benjamin Rycroft . Although i visited the hospital with him many times years
    ago I regret I did not know there is a museum there,in which he rightly features. My father, brilliantly talented though he was ,was also very modest and never sought the limelight or publicity for himself. He was extremely kind to everyone and a loving and wonderful father and I miss him greatly and always will.
    I well remember our trips down to East Grinstead on Christmas Days when he would take the family to help feed the blind patients who were too ill to go home.
    The nurses had decorated the wards with lots of colourful Christmas things and we would try to describe it all for the patients,while my father visited every one throughout his wards,usually accompanied by the very special Sister King,who had also been his theatre Sister during the war. They were a great working team.
    Father had a great sense of humour fun to be with and a superb friend and companion. Sadly,he died far too young (64) when he still had so much to contribute
    and so much good work still to accomplish. He was dedicated to his patients and to his family and i am so pleased that his memory lives on at the Museum.

    It should also be remembered that my brother Peter was a very skilled eye surgeon who worked and operated with my father and another surgeon,Abe Werb, at
    East Grinstead,Moorfields and the London Clinic. My brother was also very much involved with the Eye Bank Project,which he helped to set up with our father.
    Tragically he died in a mysterious motoring accident on the M4 a year after my father passed away and just before he was due to take over father’s practice.
    A second great loss for their patients and another successful career cut short when they had so much more to offer and discover.
    I often wished that I had had the brains and skills they possessed and followed in their footsteps,but a great lady once told me “My advice would be to do something
    different,make your own way, otherwise,as a surgeon, you will always be your father’s son !” Still,that didn’t seem such a bad thing to be and I’m very proud that I am.

    Rodney Rycroft (83) 29th August 2018 ( My father was born in August)

  4. REPLY
    Lila Howell-Jones, ne e Fisher says

    I was born with no tear ducts. My father, Group Captain R L C Fisher, an eye surgeon, and a great admirer of Dr Ben Rycroft took me in 1952 to see Dr Rycroft who successfully opened the ducts. I was only 11, terrified, as several previous attempts had failed. The joy of no more wet chapped cheeks.

Post a comment