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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

XI: Optician Service

XI: Optician Service

Following a War Cabinet decision of 25 October 1940, a limited refraction service for, and the supply of Mark III spectacles to, troops of the expeditionary force located in mobilisation camps was introduced. In this scheme selected and registered members of the Institute of Opticians of New Zealand were employed in a civilian capacity. They provided their own equipment. This scheme operated from November 1940 to November 1941.

Early in 1942 representations were made to the Adjutant-General and the DGMS by the central executive of the Institute of Opticians pointing out the need for a full-time optical service, especially with the mobilisation of Grade II men. The services provided under the civilian scheme had improved the visual efficiency of the forces.

A scheme was placed before the Minister of Defence for the appointment of seven registered opticians with commissioned rank page 277 (one as Officer in Charge at Medical HQ) to provide a full refraction service to the forces. Equipment was to be purchased by the Army. The lens and mechanical work was to be carried out by wholesale optical firms under contract. The Army was to supply the unglazed Mark III frames.

This scheme was approved by War Cabinet on 14 July 1942. Nominations for the appointments were asked for from the Institute of Opticians and the first appointment was made on 17 August. All the opticians appointed held high qualifications, the majority having had several years of English post-graduate study. Three were drawn from other army positions (one commissioned and two non-commissioned officers) and the remaining four from private practice. The orderlies had had some optical experience as mechanics or assistants.

Optician Units

The Army Optician Service commenced operation in New Zealand with the formation of six optician units. The personnel of each unit comprised one commissioned officer (a registered optician) and one orderly. Three of the units were mobile and were mounted on long-wheel-base, cab-over-engine chassis.

With the despatch of New Zealand forces to the Pacific, three additional units were formed and posted to 3 Division, to Fiji, and to No. 1 Islands Group, RNZAF. These overseas units were enlarged by the addition of a sergeant mechanic and a small workshop plant complete with stocks of uncut Toric lenses. A War Cabinet decision of 28 August 1943 extended the optician service to Navy and Air Force personnel and further units were formed. A complete mobile unit was despatched to 2 NZEF in Italy in January 1944.

In general, the optician service worked in close co-operation with medical officers, supplying reports on visual gradings, carrying out investigations in cases of ocular and visual discomfort, and supplying spectacles where the comfort or military efficiency of servicemen could thereby be improved.

The supply of equipment for the optician units was difficult. At first nearly all the equipment was lent by members of the Institute of Opticians. However, the problem was surmounted by imports, by scouring the local market, and by the manufacture of some equipment locally. War Cabinet authority was for the expenditure of about £300 a unit, and it was stated that in equipment and instruments the units compared very favourably with the average consulting room in the country.

In view of the large number of camps scattered throughout New Zealand in 1942–43, the unsuitability of the standard camp accommodation and the impracticability of building special hutments page 278 in all camps, it was arranged that mobile vans be constructed. These were built in Wellington on 158-inch wheelbase, cab-over-engine chassis. The body consisted of a consulting room 12 ft by 7 ft 6 in and an office and stock room 5 ft by 7 ft 6 in. By 31 March 1943 two vans were in operation.

For the larger camps a special set of rooms had previously been built at Papakura and Burnham, and additional permanent accommodation especially designed for the purpose was included in the plans for the new hospital buildings at Trentham and Linton.

So far as was known New Zealand was the first Allied country to establish an optician service for refractive duties with officers holding commissioned rank, and when one unit went with 3 Division to the Pacific was stated to be certainly the first country to send such a unit overseas. The formation of the service was closely followed by Australia, which established a like organisation. It was understood that the American and British units were limited to purely mechanical duties.

Up to 30 May 1945 the optician service had performed 30,000 full visual examinations, in addition to many thousand surveillance and boarding visual checks, and the work performed by this branch of the medical service fully justified its inception.