Doctors Diary 29th June 2015: From bomb sights to endoscopes
The popular annual Summer Exhibition at the Royal Society will this week be celebrating the life and achievements of Dr Harold Hopkins, an underappreciated genius of humble origins whose intuitive grasp of physics and mathematics were to have major practical applications in photography and television (the zoom lens) and the music industry (the CD laser disc) while also for good measure revolutionising the practice of surgery in virtually every medical discipline with two visionary (literally) innovations.
Born in 1918, the sixth son of an impoverished Leicester baker, Hopkins spent the war applying his exceptional mathematical gifts to redesigning the optics of bomb sights. This led on to an academic appointment at London's Imperial College and his first major contribution to medicine - prompted, if unusually, by a dinner party conversation with a fellow medical guest who expressed his frustration at being unable to thoroughly scrutinise the lining of the stomach. Hopkins speculated that thousands of glass fibres arranged in parallel should be able both to shine light round corners and transmit the image back upwards to be viewed by the observer. He spent three years on the project that would result in the fibreoptic endoscope with which Doctors now routinely inspect the dark inner recesses of every hollow organ in the body, stomach, small intestine, colon, lung and bladder with implications - both diagnostic and therapeutic - that require no elaboration.
Five years later Hopkins would trump this achievement with another yet more important that would dispense with the need for major surgery for many conditions in favour of the now familiar 'key-hole' operation where surgeons can, with minimal trauma to their patients, remove gall bladders and kidneys, excise tumours of the colon, repair injured joints, collect eggs for in vitro fertilisation and vastly more besides. This technique, the most important development in surgery since the introduction of anaesthesia, is entirely predicated on Hopkins' redesign of the optics of the rigid endoscope through which these procedures are performed, increasing the power of illumination 80-fold - equivalent to a bright, clear, sunny day.
Hopkins' innovative legacy in these several fields is probably unparalleled and might reasonably be thought to merit a statue in Trafalgar Square. But during his lifetime - he died just over twenty years ago - he received no official recognition. He is thus (again literally) a visionary without honour in his own country, an oversight that the recently formed Harold Hopkins Society is seeking to correct.
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2013 Harold Hopkins Anniversary Committee