A Short History of the EOPS

A Short History of the
European Ophthalmic Pathology Society

by Alec Garner, M.D.

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Dedicated to our American friends of the Verhoeff Society
on the occasion of the Joint Meeting, Houston 1996


To provide a detailed history of EOPS would not only be very long but also, one suspects, tedious. Of rather greater interest might be a potted history, concentrating on the more important events, spiced with a few anecdotes. Be that as it may, that is what you have before you. It is dedicated to the Verhoeff Society, in part to cement relation between EOPS and yourselves, but predominantly because without your example and inspiration there would not be an EOPS. We are proud and grateful to be associated with such a distinguished group.

The major part of the synopsis relating to the formation of the Society relies exclusively on specially prepared personal accounts by two of its three initiators, Norman Ashton and Ry Andersen. As in the beginning, so now, their input has been fundamental. We are ever in their debt. Other contributions have relied on minutes of the business meetings and individual recollections.

Initial Inspiration

On April 24th, 1959, Norman Ashton wrote a letter to his friend Dr. Willem Manschot in Rotterdam in which he said:

"I have just returned from America and was most impressed by their Ophthalmic Pathology Club, which has a restricted membership of 30 and meets once a year. It has no officers, no finances and no publications, the whole idea being that each member brings his most interesting case of the year to show the others. I thought that you and I might establish a similar European Eye Pathology Club ...
... Let me know your thoughts on this."

The occasion to which he referred was when, during a period as Visiting Professor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he was invited to be the Guest of Honour at a meeting of the Ophthalmic Pathology Club inaugurated by Dr. Verhoeff but only later dignified by his name. That was on March l7th and l8th, 1959, in Washington. Norman was profoundly impressed by the excellence of the presentations, the high level of discussion and the friendly and relaxed atmosphere in which the meeting was conducted. He also perceived that by having leaders of high calibre, standards were set which acted as a challenge to less experienced members. Because membership was fixed and limited, election was a highly rated honour enhancing the reputation of both the individual and the subject. That, he decided, was exactly what was required in Europe, where there was no organisation whatsoever in the developing discipline of ophthalmic pathology.

Within days Willem Manschot replied with an enthusiasm typical of him in support of the proposal, concluding:

"I willingly place my humble vigours to your disposal in order to achieve this excellent purpose as soon as possible."

The next step was to contact potential members, given that both Norman and Willem were initially considering a membership of 20-30. One of the more difficult tasks was to identify those who might qualify, since ophthalmic pathology was not really recognised as a distinct discipline in Europe and its practitioners had rarely had a formal training in the subject. (Even Britain, whose Institute of Ophthalmology in London Ry Andersen of Denmark termed the "European Mecca of eye pathology", had only the single centre). It took over two years to draw up a list of suitable candidates.

A key figure in these preparatory stages was Sigurd Ry Andersen who, like Norman Ashton, had been a guest of the American Ophthalmic Pathology Club in 1951 and had been similarly inspired. On his way back to Copenhagen he broke his journey in London and, on discovering that the idea of creating a European counterpart had already been mooted, immediately offered his full support. Thus came into being the triumvirate that would give substance to the concept.

Apart from determining who might be invited to join the club, there was, in view of the polyglot character of the prospective membership, a language problem. Willem Manschot indicated that the proceedings should be conducted in English and that a degree of competence in English should be a condition of membership. Alfred Brini of Strasbourg, another of the early enthusiasts to whom Norman Ashton had written very soon after receiving Willem's support, repeated the sentiment of his chief, Professor Nordmann, that all non-English speaking people eventually get on very well on the basis of "broken English", terming it the new esperanto. And so it was resolved.

Protocol had to be observed and, when in April, l961, Norman felt that the time was ripe to make finite arrangements for an inaugural meeting, he formally invited Dr. Manschot to join the Club while expressing the hope that Willem would in due course invite him! Willem went one better and indicated that Norman should be the first president with a tenure of at least 20 years! Invitations to a meeting to be held in London in 1962 were sent to prospective members in May, 1961, together with details of what would be expected of them:

Only those who felt that they could meet these criteria could expect to be elected to membership. The list of invitees was limited to about 30, in part because of logistic problems in finding sufficient individual microscopes and sections, in part so as not to put at risk the informality that Norman and Ry had found such an attractive feature of the American prototype, and in part to create an elitist character that would allow only the best exponents of the subject to be members.

Inaugural Meeting

The European Ophthalmic Pathology Club was officially launched in London at a two-day meeting held at the Royal College of Surgeons on April l0th and 11th, l962. Of 31 persons who had expressed an intention of joining the club, 21 attended, representing some 12 countries. There were also six guests. Correspondingly, altogether 27 cases were presented and, while of interest, the overall standard left something to be desired with generally poor quality protocols, sections and projection slides. Discussion, also, tended to be stilted, much to the disappointment of those who had experienced the frank and informal character of the American club. Norman Ashton thought that, although natural reserve and inexperience may have been factors, language was the main problem. Delivering a prepared protocol was one thing, conversing impromptu in a foreign language was quite another and was only possible through the services of three multi-lingual members who provided immediate translations. (This stalwart trio of Drs. René Barry [U.K.], Alfred Brini [France] and Ernst Landolt [Switzerland] was to be vital in the formative years of the Society).

Business meetings can be tiresome but are a necessary evil, none more so than the first which had to lay plans for future meetings of the Club. Indeed, should the organisation be termed a club? The first resolution of the "Club" was to change the name to the "European Ophthalmic Pathology Society", the former title being considered unsuitable for a learned society. (Interestingly, the American "Club" soon followed the EOPS and renamed themselves "The Verhoeff Society": inspiration could travel from east to west as well as vice versa!). The 31 individuals who had indicated their wish to join the Society were duly elected as Founder Members and it was agreed that the total membership should not exceed 35. The need of a written constitution was recognised and to that end a Steering Committee, composed of the three instigators of the Society (Ashton, Manschot and Andersen), was appointed and a decision concerning the election of officers was deferred pending receipt and confirmation of the constitution. It was resolved to meet once a year and Ry Andersen invited the Society to Copenhagen for the next year, whilst Rudolf Gittler offered to host the 1964 meeting in Vienna. Both invitations were accepted with enthusiasm.

After the meeting, Norman Ashton wrote to Algernon Reese in New York to tell him that "the American Club had had a happy event" whereupon the latter cabled back:

"I am elated to hear of the birth of the European Ophthalmic Pathology Club. The array of members is most impressive both from the standpoint of personnel as well as scope. As ten countries are represented, I thought it was very appropriate that the last name on your list was "Babel"."

Another decision of the business meeting was to send a set of slides from each meeting to the American Club, Ry Andersen having previously suggested to Michael Hogan that perhaps they might like to let the European Club have slides from their meetings. (This annual exchange has helped to ensure that the umbilical cord has never been severed.)

The First Years : 1963-1970

The second EOPS meeting took place in Copenhagen from May l5th -l8th, and was attended by 25 members with seven guests. Principal among the guests was Algernon Reese, the first of a long line of Honoured Guests from the Verhoeff Society. A welcome improvement in the standard of presentation was apparent and, with the object of promoting the clinical relevance of ophthalmic pathology, Ry Andersen organised a joint evening meeting with the Danish Ophthalmological Society addressed by Drs. Ashton, Brini and Reese. At the business meeting Norman Ashton was elected to the Presidency, Willem Manschot was made Corresponding Secretary and, since the next meeting was to be held in Vienna, Helmut Fanta was appointed as Organising Secretary. (The first two of these official posts would subsequently change every three years, whereas the position of Organising Secretary would vary from year to year according to the choice of venue for the meetings). Four new members were elected to achieve the planned complement of 35. In addition, Professor Andre Mawas, the Grand Old Man of French ophthalmic pathology who, at the age of 75, was retired and not really eligible for membership, was made an Honorary Member.

A feature of the EOPS meetings initiated in Copenhagen that has been of major importance in bonding the members in a true society has been the social programme. Even that might not have won the desired outcome had it not been for the presence of spouses and other personal guests. In those sexist early days, when pathology was mostly a male pursuit, the informal conversation initiated by the ladies did far more to overcome national suspicions, even resentments, than did the more formal deliberations of the elected members in their scientific sessions.

The next few years saw a gradual but steady improvement in the level of presentation. Language differences, however, continued to be a problem when it came to discussion, it having been agreed that while English was mandatory for case presentation discussion could be conducted in the participant's preferred language. It must have been an especial headache for the gallant translators when they had to contend with a 10-15 minute discussion contribution from Professor Mawas, whose enthusiasm was unlimited, especially if the subject was retinoblastoma. It could be amusing though. At the end of one particularly trying session (from a linguistic paint of view) the gallant chairman announced that we would have a "breakdown for coffee"! - a Freudian slip?

It had been expected that members would dress formally (tuxedos) at the official dinner but at a subsequent business meeting the members resolved to discontinue this practise, which occasioned a minute indicating that, while this was the wish of the majority, "some gentlemen" demurred! (Checking the minute reveals a hand-written emendation so that the signed minute is rather more precise, reading: "...to the great regret of the two gentlemen present...". Norman and Willem may know who the two were!

Some meetings were not without excitement. As when the members and their guests at the Barcelona meeting in 1965 were returning from a visit to Montserrat where they had been liberally wined and dined by Professor José Casanovas, the then President. They had to cope with a hair-raising ride in the dark around hair-pin bends high up in the mountains and, by all accounts, several lives were substantially shortened that night! The 1968 meeting in Paris had to contend with a student uprising at the Sorbonne so that the walk (there were no taxis!) to the restaurant for the official dinner on the Champs Elysees was lined by policemen in riot gear. Departure after the meeting was a nightmare because the airports and railways were on strike.

The previous year had been distinguished by the attendance of ten members at the Verhoeff Society's 20th anniversary meeting and this whetted the appetites of both for further contact.

Middle Years : 1971-1986

Correspondingly in 1971, since the l0th EOPS meeting coincided with the 25th meeting of the VS, the two societies celebrated the occasion by meeting jointly in London. Both the scientific and the social programmes were a huge triumph, the later including a private tour of a floodlit Westminster Abbey, a reception by the Lord Mayor of London at the Mansion House and dinner at the Goldsmith's Hall. By this time the standard of case presentation and subsequent discussion had risen immeasurably relative to the first few years and the novices were in some danger of emulating their model! Could it have been, however, that you felt we still had something to learn in terms of discipline? Else, why did you consider it appropriate at the end of the meeting to present us with a presidential gavel? But, such was the success of the joint venture that the VS arranged the second EOPS / VS meeting in Washington in 1976, the year that saw the bicentenary of your existence as a nation. This again went extremely well, sole bone of contention was chewed over at the official dinner when David Cogan sparred with Norman Ashton concerning the winning of the War of Independence. But this was not a problem for the EOPS as a whole, just the British who, in any case, had been advised by Ted Sanders when he was our Honoured Guest the previous year to leave their red-coats at home.

Equally successful were combined meetings in 1981, organised by Jean Babel in Geneva, and in 1986 in Philadelphia at the invitation of Myron Yanoff. At the 1981 meeting the VS presented the EOPS with a leather-bound book in which to record events of interest, the intention being that it should revert to the VS in 1986 for it to do likewise. By repeating the exercise every five years the already strong link between the two societies would be further consolidated.

More Recent Years : 1987 -1996

A cause for sadness for much of EOPS' existence was the almost total exclusion for political reasons of countries behind the "Iron Curtain". From very early days in the Society's history there had been an East German member, originally in the form of Professor Günther and then of Gerhard Goder, but for most of the time their attendance was, through no fault of theirs, erratic. Equally regrettable was the inability of Professor Vrabec of the erstwhile Czechoslovak Republic to attend more than the one meeting at which he was voted into membership. It was good, therefore, when in 1990 it was possible to elect a representative from Hungary (Ildikó Süveges) and now, since the further break up of the communist empire, the way is open to consider applications from the whole of Europe. Already we have a Polish member (Zbiegniew Zagórski), a second Hungarian member (Jeanette Tóth) and have had a further pathologist from the Czech Republic as our guest.

By the time we came to our fifth combined meeting in 1991, masterminded by our then President, Gottfried (Fritz) Naumann, in Nuremberg-Erlangen, the membership of EOPS had changed radically from that elected in 1962. There are now just two surviving Founder Members if we exclude our Honorary Life President and those with emeritus status: Ahti Tarkkanen and our current President, Michel Hanssens. But turnover is vital if stagnation is to be avoided and the Society can look forward with eager anticipation to the contribution that the new members with fresh approaches can make to our discipline. At only the second business meeting there was a move to adopt the name European Ophthalmic Histopathology Society because that reflected the overriding activity of the members. Wisely, the proposal was rejected and as we approach the millennium, the wisdom is even more apparent, allowing newer laboratory-based approaches to the study of ocular pathology to supplement the time-honoured histological skills.

Dare we suggest that you, as members of the Verhoeff Society, that you can take pride in your followers? If so, that would be the highest accolade to which the members of the European Ophthalmic Pathology Society could aspire.

London, 1996

Alec Garner, M.D.

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Letter to the Editor Tero Kivelä Courtesy of the University of Helsinki