Michael Sanders, neuro-ophthalmologist and pioneer in studying how diseases of the brain and eyes are linked – obituary

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Sanders: a superb trainer of young doctors who believed medicine could be fun
Sanders: a superb trainer of young doctors who believed medicine could be fun

Michael Sanders, who has died aged 86, founded neuro-ophthalmology, the study of the effects of brain disease on the eyes, as an ophthalmic subspecialty in this country. A prodigious researcher, gifted lecturer and inspired teacher, he brought a little-known branch of eye surgery into mainstream ophthalmology. With the aid of advanced computer technology, including the emerging use of CT and MRI scans, he helped to revolutionise the diagnosis of many forms of eye disease.

Michael David Sanders was born on September 19 1935 in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, where his parents managed a tea estate. Educated at Tonbridge School, he joined Guy’s Hospital shortly after his 18th birthday. The award of the Charles Oldham eyes prize at Guy’s determined the future course of his career in ophthalmology.

After qualifying, he joined P&O as an assistant surgeon. Performing a delicate and successful operation to repair the tendons on the hand of a sailor who had been involved in a brawl gave him the confidence to become an eye surgeon, and on his return to London he joined the Maudsley Hospital to train in neuro-surgery.

Sanders’s success as a neuro-ophthalmologist owed much to the breadth of his training. A year’s course in general medicine at Balham hospital led to his acquiring membership of the Royal College of Physicians in addition to the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, gained after three years’ further training at Moorfields Hospital.

He then won a Medical Research Council fellowship to study in San Francisco under Professor William F Hoyt, the leading neuro-ophthalmologist of his day. The disciplines acquired during this year were to set the tone for the rest of his career.

Back in London, Sanders remained in close touch with his talented colleagues in San Francisco. During his subsequent appointments as consultant neuro-ophthalmologist, first at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, and then at St Thomas’ Hospital, he set up an international network of visiting professors from North and South America, Europe and Australia. Their lectures became part of his acclaimed training scheme for young ophthalmologists.

In his 30 years at Queen Square and St Thomas’, Sanders saw cases, taught students, gave prestigious named lectures, organised conferences and published more than 180 peer-reviewed papers, embracing new knowledge and techniques. These included one of the first papers on the use of fluorescein angiography for investigating diseases of the blood vessels in the retina and the optic nerve; and on the use of CT and MRI scans. With Professor Ivan Moseley, he wrote the first book on computerised scanning in neuro-ophthalmology.

Although Sanders was scholarly, he was no introvert. His success as a trainer of young doctors came from his enjoyment of people and from the stimulus they gave him. His prodigious output of research papers depended on his enthusiasm and urge to communicate.

For him, medicine was fun: the arrival of, and the achievements of, members of his team had always to be marked by parties whose atmosphere he relished. The instinct for hospitality, shared by his wife, Thalia, extended far beyond his professional circle.

His generosity extended to his charitable work as a trustee of the Fund for the Prevention of Blindness, of the Gift of Sight, which supports work at Southampton Eye Hospital, and of the Frost Foundation, where he helped establish the Frost Professorship at St Thomas’ King’s College Hospital.

In retirement he preached the virtues of relaxation, advice to which he paid little attention himself. As a resident of the Hampshire village of Chawton, he took great interest in its famous inhabitant, Jane Austen, and produced, with his St Thomas’ colleague, Elizabeth Graham, a fresh and convincing diagnosis of the cause of her death as lupus (the theory achieved prominence in a recent edition of the Telegraph).

Two years in the researching, this paper was the product of his usual meticulous attention to detail. In addition to raising funds for a statue of Jane Austen in Chawton churchyard and for restoration of the church bells, he also found time for fishing and golf, a sport which did not benefit from his usual devotion to accuracy.

He is survived by his wife Thalia and their two children.

Michael Sanders, born September 19 1935, died July 25 2022