Reader and Industry Forum

A Tribute to Desmond Fonn, MOptom, FAAO

Reader and Industry Forum

A Tribute to Desmond Fonn, MOptom, FAAO

By Lyndon Jones, PhD, FCOptom, FAAO

December 2010 saw the retirement of one of the true icons of contact lens research when Desmond Fonn, MOptom, FAAO, founding director of the Centre for Contact Lens Research (CCLR) within the School of Optometry at the University of Waterloo (UW), retired.

Founding the CCLR

Established in 1988, the CCLR was the brain-child of then director of the School of Optometry, Dr. Jake Sivak. “I first met Des at an Academy meeting in Atlanta in 1985,” said Jake. “I had been director for about a year and felt that the area of contact lens research needed some consolidation. The notion of the need for a centre devoted to contact lenses had been discussed within our faculty for some time. I invited Des to visit us while he was in North America presenting at the American Academy of Optometry meeting. Des made his first visit to Waterloo that December, when it was very cold with lots of snow. He had no boots and just a thin windbreaker. Getting him to the University Club involved a search for a borrowed winter coat and boots, and I was fairly sure that the weather would turn him off. But Des didn't say a word (typical, I suppose), and in the end he and Anita and their children moved to Canada. The rest is history, but I've often wondered if Des ever felt truly warm again!”

Those early days provided an umbrella organization for contact lens and related research at UW, offering both the opportunity and the infrastructure to carry out applied/clinical research. Initial members included faculty with a broad variety of backgrounds, including Dr. Murchison Callender, Dr. Tony Cullen, and Dr. Michael Doughty, along with two support staff and two researchers. It typically conducted five to six studies a year and had a turnover of around $200,000.

One of the earliest CCLR employees was Kathy Dumbleton, MSc, MCOptom, FAAO, FBCLA. “The CCLR was a little different then,” Kathy pointed out. “It comprised just a handful of rooms tucked away in the corner of the building on the second floor. Our awkward and very cramped location didn't stop Des though, and it was not surprising that more space was soon needed to house all the people who wanted to work with him. An extension to the School of Optometry allowed this to happen in 1995.”

Figure 1. Desmond Fonn and Brien Holden in the early 1980s.

When initially setting up the Centre, Des used the Cornea and Contact Lens Research Unit (CCLRU) at the University of New South Wales, which had been set up several years earlier by his longtime friend and mentor Brien Holden, PhD, DSc, OAM, FAAO (Figure 1), as its model. “Des Fonn is an amazing combination of researcher, teacher, humanitarian, and leader,” said Brien. “He has combined integrity, fellowship, excellence, and effectiveness like few other people in the field of eye care, and in doing so built the CCLR into a research centre of outstanding quality and output. He has added immensely to the range and capabilities of both academia and professional optometry through his leadership roles in the CCLR, the International Association of Contact Lens Educators (IACLE), the International Society for Contact Lens Research (ISCLR), Optometry Giving Sight, and UW School of Optometry. His many friends around the world wish him much happiness, health, and years of enjoyment in his retirement.”

A Lifetime of Accomplishments

How do you summarize Des' contribution to contact lens research? Well, he's published more than 100 peer-reviewed publications since 1982, with many published in the top-ranked optometry and ophthalmology journals. In addition, he has published six book chapters and more than 300 peer-reviewed abstracts. He is world renowned for his work investigating corneal swelling as an indicator of physiological stress to the cornea and also for his work investigating the reasons behind lens discomfort and cessation of lens wear.

For 25 years he has been regularly invited to present his work at conferences worldwide and has presented more than 300 lectures and invited addresses, including numerous keynote presentations. He has received a number of high-caliber awards, including the 2008 BCLA Gold Medal, the 2007 Kenneth W. Bell Gold Medal from the Contact Lens Society of Australia, the 2003 Otto Wichterle Medal from the Czech Contact Lens Society, and the 2002 Max Schapero Award from the Cornea and Contact Lens Section of the American Academy of Optometry.

But arguably, his real “research” legacy is evidenced by the group he has assembled at the CCLR, which is now an internationally recognized research facility that includes four faculty members, 20 researchers, 15 support staff, and 10 graduate students, with an annual turnover of approximately $4 million. Des has assembled a prolific group, whom over the past two years alone has published 45 peer-reviewed manuscripts, a rate of almost two manuscripts a month.

In addition to his research, supervision, and teaching accomplishments, Des has been extremely busy with various administrative appointments. He is a founding member and past president of the ISCLR, a founding member and past vice-president of IACLE, a member of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Board for the Tear Film and Ocular Surface Society, and he is a Diplomate in the Cornea & Contact Lens Section of the American Academy of Optometry and serves on its Research Diplomate Committee.

He remains the editor for Eye and Contact Lens (ECL), the official journal of the Contact Lens Association of Ophthalmologists (CLAO). He is the first optometrist to hold this role, demonstrating the respect for him among both optometrists and ophthalmologists worldwide. Former ECL Editor Dwight Cavanagh, MD, said, “The rarest of all academics are those that not only contribute important new knowledge by their own efforts, but also, by inspiration, lift and move a whole generation of students and colleagues in their chosen fields of scholarship. Clearly, Des Fonn is such a person, and the professions of optometry, ophthalmology, and the larger community of vision science are the richer for his life and efforts.”

In acknowledgement of Des' contributions, the UW School of Optometry has established the Desmond Fonn Contact Lens Research Award, which is an endowed graduate award to provide ongoing resources for the CCLR to attract and reward deserving graduate students. Any donations to the award are being matched by the Fonn family, and any readers wishing to donate toward this should contact me at the CCLR at for information on how to donate.

An Inspiration to Many

Finally, Des' ability to motivate people is an over-riding feature commented on by many. “Des has a gift for being able to encourage people to strive to achieve goals that they did not think were possible, and for helping and guiding them along the way,” commented Kathy Dumbleton.

Figure 2. Desmond Fonn in 2010.

Longtime colleague and friend Dr. John McNally commented, “I believe that one of Des' most noteworthy accomplishments is the impact that he has had on other people's careers. He has launched careers, mentored careers, stimulated careers, revived careers—he has served as an advisor, a confidante, and a friend. And contrary to popular belief, it's all done with a smile!”

Indeed, the belief that Des has a “grumpy” exterior has been a joke among the contact lens fraternity for decades. But as Kathy pointed out, “Despite the fact that many people have claimed over the years that it can be hard to get Des to smile, I am pleased to dispel this myth and to say that over the past few years in particular, many of us have witnessed exuberant ‘smiles' from Des. In fact, as Figure 2 shows, Des can smile as well as any of us! The brightest of his smiles, though, are reserved for his family, in particular for his granddaughter, Summer.”

A Wish for All the Best

The CCLR and the contact lens community in general paid tribute to Des at a retirement event at the 2010 American Academy of Optometry meeting, and it was gratifying to see the numbers who turned out to wish him well on his retirement.

Des, we wish you well and many hours of enjoyment with your family and on the golf course. CLS

Dr. Jones is director of the Centre for Contact Lens Research and a professor at the School of Optometry at the University of Waterloo. He has received research funding from Alcon, AMO, B+L, Ciba Vision, CooperVision, Johnson & Johnson, and Menicon.