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Wishing Lady Jean Wilson a Happy 100th Birthday

Published: 10.08.2022
Lady Jean

As Lady Jean Wilson turns 100 this month, we reached out to several people she and Sir John Wilson worked with to put together a memory box, full of photos and well-wishes to help her mark this milestone.

IAPB’s CEO Peter Holland says, “On behalf of IAPB and so many of us that work in eye health, I’d like to wish Lady Jean Wilson an amazing 100th birthday. In the early days of IAPB, you and Sir John Wilson set the ambition that still inspires today to campaign and work tirelessly towards achieving eye care for all. We hope the end of avoidable sight loss is within our grasp. Happy Birthday, Lady Jean”!

Hannah Faal – Ex-IAPB President

When I think of Lady Jean, inextricably part of the Wilson legend, the lady who coined the term River Blindness bringing the scourge to the world’s attention; I think of a multifaceted indeterminate carat diamond, mined originally from colonial Africa. Of course, where else would such a diamond come from?

Blindness and VisionarySir John Coles book Blindness and the Visionary, The Life and Work of John Wilson shared with us how much she has been part of the legend of Sir John Wilson and so I believe that my story which starts with Sir John could be read as starting with Lady Jean as well.  In the early eighties, the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind(RCSB)  of which Sir John was founder,  was supporting National Societies for the Blind as well as fledgling eye care services and The Gambia was one of those countries. I happened to have moved to The Gambia as an ophthalmologist completely bereft of knowledge or skills outside a university scenario and suddenly having to go beyond the individual’s ophthalmic care to  population care. Dr Shiona Sowa, recently retired from the Medical Research Council, The Gambia and who was providing eye care services with RCSB support, in a letter introduced me to Sir John, sharing my dilemma.

Without any hesitation, Sir John invited me to the IAPB General Assembly in Washington DC in 1982 and I was catapulted into prevention of blindness, exposed to luminaries like Prof Barrie Jones and down to earth eye care programmes in Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. I was bitten by the Prevention of Blindness bug. The rest is history.

Fast forward to 1999, my youngest daughter was at a boarding school in Brighton. I was a staff of RCSB and was to take on being the President of IAPB both founded by Sir John. His home was in Brighton. A coincidence? As an African woman, my culture directed me to go to the source of the spring, to drink from and fetch water. I wrote to Sir John and just as he did in 1982, he invited me, this time to his home in Brighton. And so it was that, in that summer, I met Lady Jean at her home and was absorbed into their warmth and family. We spent a most pleasant afternoon. On the Presidency, I was full of fear and trepidation and needed grounding from Sir John. By the time he finished, my confidence was bolstered. Sir John said ..”We need to bombard the UN, I could make you give an address to the Assembly”.. which I quickly declined.. my confidence was not that high! And so it was particularly satisfying, to me in memory of that summer day and much more to Lady Wilson, that the first UN Resolution on eye health was passed in 2021.

Lady Jean provided a lovely meal, a walk round her garden, a very uplifting   conversation including the offer to being a family to my daughter in boarding school. I shall not forget that day, the warmth and absorption into the family and Lady Jean’s infectious enthusiasm for all things.

We stayed in touch; I shared IAPB presidency progress with Sir John, sadly he passed in November 1999, I attended the funeral service and continued thereafter with Lady Jean. She continued sharing her ongoing work with disability and later with deafness. In 2013, she included me in  the advisory group of the Hearing Conservation Council to share my experience with eye care programme development  especially the use of mid-level personnel.  Before the COVID pandemic, meetings were held in London, and I could not attend but was copied into the meetings of the Hearing Conservation Council.

But this lady with foresight and of extraordinary courage and determination has taken prevention of deafness along the path of prevention of blindness and achieved all  that was required to address it as a public health problem and a disability. The World Health Assembly passed the Hearing Loss Resolution in May 2017. The Global Coalition on Healthy Ageing includes visual and hearing disability and in 2020, disability inclusive health systems are accepted as ideal.

Lady Jean Wilson will be celebrated as the right hand to Sir John Wilson for all they achieved during his lifetime. Her delight at the continuing elimination of River Blindness and huge impact on millions of people. Her faithfulness and fortitude in continuing to run the race, to keep the faith and to achieve so much for disability and for deafness in spite of her age. But more than that, I personally recognise and bless her for the warmth and love for all she touches. We thank God for keeping her with us for 100 years and pray she stays on in joy, peace and good health. Amen.

Happy Birthday, Lady Jean!! OAD—(Our African Diamond)

Wishes from Aravind Eye Care System:


Dear Lady Jean Wilson,

JeanOn behalf of our entire Aravind Family (both personal and professional families) we are very proud to be associated with you and SirJohn Wilson for the past 50 years. I saw both of you almost 50 years back and since then we have been considering your family as one of ours.

Dr.Sir John Wilson and yourself inspired my brother, Dr.G.Venkataswamy in many ways from the beginning !. Dr.V used to say how a blind man is mentoring a seeing person like me in eliminating Needless Blindness! Dr.V used to be so comfortable in getting ideas from Sir John Wilson.  I have admired your gentle ways and concern for others. You were a great support to Sir John Wilson in his worldwide eye care work.

I have been to your house twice about 20 years back.  The dinner we had at your home when we visited the second time, is etched in my memory. It was perfect in every detail, from the beautiful and welcoming way the table was set to the love and care with which the food was served by you and Claire. Even today, I can visualize table and dishes very clearly!.

It will soon be 46 years, since Aravind was established. Aravind continues to give meaningful purpose to our lives as we carry on the work Dr. V began towards eliminating needless blindness. May we be guided by his example and grow in the deep values he embodied.

We would like to thank you and Sir John Wilson for supporting us right from the beginning in all the ways. On behalf of our family I would like to wish you a very Happy and Healthy 100th Birthday !

Thulasiraj Ravilla:

Dear Jean,

Knowing you and Sir John, are amongst our very special blessings in life. We cherish the times that we got to spend with you during your rare visits to Madurai and the couple of times we got to meet with you. I distinctly recall writing to you in 2013, since I was going to be in Brighton for an IAPB Meeting. I asked if I could come by to meet with you and take you out for dinner. You very readily agreed and closer to the date, you suggested that we could meet at your home itself and that you will put together, something for dinner. I guiltily agreed, recognizing the trouble we would be causing for you. By then I had invited Suzanne Gilbert to come along and you welcomed it. On the evening of 14th Sep 2013, Suzanne and I landed up at your home at the appointed hour. That turned out to be a memorable evening on many counts. The “putting together something for dinner”, turned out to be a five-course, properly laid out dinner. Claire had come over and that was very special bonus. And we couldn’t stop talking animatedly, even well past midnight.

You were equally engaged at the IAPB meeting, attending many of the deliberations.

In addition to the joy of meeting with you, I came back, enriched with many lessons, some of which are still unfolding as I think about that evening. One is to commit yourself completely once you decide to something. Be present at the moment. In all of this, age is neither a concern nor an excuse – you were 91+ then when you entertained us and inspired everyone else at the IAPB gathering.

I feel very privileged to be able to wish you a very happy 100th birthday.

Fondly, Thulsi


Dear Lady Jean,

I was in college at that time and I did not realise what an honour it was to visit you at home in Brighton, along with my parents and sister during our first visit to the UK.

But the warmth of your home and hospitality is always a special memory. We wish you a wonderful 100th birthday!

Lady Jean
Lady Jean
Thulsi and Lady Jean 1
Thulsi and Lady Jean
Thulsi and Lady Jean
At Lady Jean's home

Victoria Sheffield, ex-IAPB Vice President:

Wishing Lady Jean a Happy 100th birthday. I did not know Lady Jean well but as a young woman coming up in the international eye health community in the 1980s and 1990s, she was always very generous and encouraging and that meant a lot to me.

Special thanks to Victoria for scanning such old photographs

IAPB 3rd GA 1986 Delhi Lady Jean1
IAPB 3rd GA 1986 Delhi Lady Jean
Sir John is sitting next to the late Dr. Carl Kupfer, founding head of the National Eye Institute at NIH in Bethesda, MD and IAPB President from 1982 to 1990

Allen Foster:

As a young ophthalmologist returning from work in Tanzania I attended (I think in 1980) the European Congress of Ophthalmology in Brighton with Dr Joseph Taylor who pioneered the training of eye care workers throughout Africa. While in Brighton Joe took me to visit Sir John and Lady Jean at their home and we were entertained to afternoon tea and lots of discussion about “River Blindness” the name of which was coined by Lady Jean and Trachoma (I think “desert blindness” never caught on!!). It was an honour and privilege to meet and talk with Sir John and Lady Jean. Later while at CBM I met Lady Jean several times as she pioneered and promoted work in Prevention of Deafness.

Lady Jean thank you for your inspiring words, deeds and life.

God Bless.

Hugh Taylor:

Dear Lady Jean, my very warmest congratulations on such a wonderful 100th Birthday. Well done. We are all so proud of you and all that you and Sir John have done. The wonderful movement for ending avoidable vision loss and blindness throughout the world that has been led by the NGOs working together through the IAPB is truly amazing.

I remember meeting you and Sir John at the 1978 IAPB Ga in Oxford, but despite our aspirations, who would have thought we would have been able to achieve what is happening today.

We also meet a number of times at various IAPB meetings and you were always so friendly and interested in people, in who they were, where they were from and what they were trying to achieve. You really brought a sense of family and togetherness to these meeting, particularly for those who were attending for the first time.

So I am delighted to send my warmest greetings and to say “Happy Birthday!”

Suzanne Gilbert and Seva Foundation:

Dear Lady Jean,

Seva Foundation family has fond memories of your remarkable wit and wisdom.

During the years you and Sir John served on the Seva Board you enriched and enlightened us all.

Your model of dedication in support of John and the global cause continue to inspire us today.

Your energy level and intense focus on helping others is simply awesome.

Lady Jean with Thulsi and Suzanne Gilbert in Brighton
Lady Jean with Thulsi and Suzanne Gilbert in Brighton

On a more personal note, I am delighted that you hosted me for a dinner party at your Brighton home along with Aravind’s Thulsi.

The six course dinner you prepared was memorable indeed (and delicious)!

Sending you loving best wishes,

Suzanne Gilbert on behalf of your Seva family