Lady Jean Wilson and her late husband Sir John have helped millions since founding the Haywards Heath-based charity Sightsavers. As she celebrates her 100th birthday, she is still tirelessly campaigning

‘There were three of us, me John and John’s secretary, and we had one spare chair hoping for visitors,’ smiles Lady Wilson as she recalls the first morning of the organisation that started on a shoestring.

The date was January 5, 1950, and after scrubbing the floors of the room in London’s Victoria Street the trio put in the chairs, table and a telephone. Despite the acorn-like beginnings, Sir John - who was blinded at the age of 12 when a Bunsen burner exploded in his face during a school chemistry lesson - was convinced it would grow and help change lives on a global basis.

‘He stood up in that little office and said “this society will become worldwide, but it will be simple enough to be something effective in an African village”. We were on the phone all day long on our first day, it took off so quickly,’ recalls Lady Wilson. ‘John had written to all the newspapers and the phones started ringing. I picked up and said “which department would you like? I think he’s free now”, because it had to be a different voice to John’s. We had tremendous fun.’

Her husband’s words were prophetic as Sightsavers now works in more than 30 countries in some of the poorest parts of the world to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote the rights of people with disabilities.

Great British Life: Fatuma Hamis Mchoya after trachoma surgery in TanzaniaFatuma Hamis Mchoya after trachoma surgery in Tanzania (Image: Copyright Jason J Mulikita/Sightsavers 2018)

The organisation, originally called the British Empire Society for the Blind, began after Sir John - who described his own situation as nothing more than a ‘confounded nuisance’ - left Oxford University, where he met his wife, and got his first job as assistant secretary of the National Institute for the Blind. He quickly realised that the organisations of the time were focused on helping those already blind, rather than preventing blindness.

This was reinforced in 1946 when he took part in a nine-month government-sponsored tour of the African and Middle Eastern territories in the former British Empire to study the causes of widespread sight issues and blindness.

Great British Life: Lady Jean and Sir John were determined to prevent blindnessLady Jean and Sir John were determined to prevent blindness (Image: Copyright Sightsavers 2012)

‘They were shocked,’ says Lady Wilson, who celebrated her 100th birthday in August, and lives in a retirement home in West Sussex. ‘If you were blind at the time you were seen as useless, a mouth to be fed and that was all, sitting all day doing nothing. John came back determined to do something in Africa, and that’s why we set up the office.

She has her own ‘horrifying’ memories of travelling with her husband to Ghana where they learned about onchocerciasis, or river blindness. The parasitic disease, leading to visual impairment and permanent blindness, is caused by blackflies found close to water and often near remote villages. ‘We’d heard people refer to a village as the country of the blind, so we headed up there,’ she says. ‘We met men who were blind being led with a stick by children; crops were poor, absolute dereliction. We’d only just been started about a year and barely had money to pay the rent. John said “we’ve got to do something about this, I think it could be onchocerciasis”. It was then I said I couldn’t pronounce the word. We were on a river bed, clouds of flies coming up, and then I suggested that we call it river blindness and that is how it got that name.’

Great British Life: A trachoma patient receives an eye examination from community health volunteer Ngrotin Lng'or at her home in Turkana, KenyaA trachoma patient receives an eye examination from community health volunteer Ngrotin Lng'or at her home in Turkana, Kenya (Image: (C) Sightsavers/Tommy Trenchard)

On return they set about raising £40,000, calling it the ‘eyes and flies’ campaign, to send out two eye doctors to start a programme of treatment and prevention. ‘It was an awful lot of money then,’ muses Lady Wilson.

Their stalwart work gained attention, none more so than in 1958 when the organisation, renamed the Commonwealth Society for the Blind the previous year, was granted royal status by the Queen.

In addition to alleviating sight problems, the charity was constantly looking at ways to remove the stigma of the day surrounding sight impairment. This resulted in many parents believing it wasn’t worth sending their children to school. Once again they tackled it head on and put together a team of seven visually impaired men from Uganda, Nigeria and Tanzania to do what nobody had done before.

‘There were thoughts of crossing the Sahara, and then of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, which wasn’t done in those days,’ says Lady Wilson. ‘We needed money so I wrote to lots of school geography masters and asked if they would sponsor them. The group went to a training centre and they started the climb. They reported each day how far they’d got. We were in all the papers and the Queen sent a telegram congratulating them. Parents said “well, if men can climb Kilimanjaro, Tommy can go to school”. It was worth it. Children went to school and that’s why we did it.’

In 1971 the charity relocated to a new head office in Haywards Heath, which was opened by the Queen.

Great British Life: The Queen has supported the organisation and opened the Haywards Heath office in 1971The Queen has supported the organisation and opened the Haywards Heath office in 1971 (Image: (C) Sightsavers)

‘The Queen has done so much for us,’ says Lady Wilson. ‘She came to concerts and spoke about our work on her Christmas Day broadcast when the men got to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. When we moved to Haywards Heath she spent the whole afternoon with us. She sat and chatted with John, having tea, spoke to all the staff and looked at photographs of our work. She has always taken an active interest. Princess Alexandra, the current president of Sightsavers, also always came to our annual meetings.’

Great British Life: Lady Jean with her late husband Sir John in 1976 in GenevaLady Jean with her late husband Sir John in 1976 in Geneva (Image: Copyright Sightsavers 2012)

The organisation changed its name in 1986 after adopting the moniker used by the children’s television programme Blue Peter after it launched its Sight Savers appeal for the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind. The campaign raised more than £2 million for eye care across Africa; 20 times the original goal.

Starting from small beginnings, the charity has always been close to the Wilson family’s collective heart.

‘From early childhood we were closely involved in the development of our parents’ work in many ways, including sticking stamps on appeal letters, reading aloud to John, learning Braille or accompanying them on visits at home and abroad,’ says the couple’s eldest daughter Claire Hicks, who grew up in Brighton and lives near Chichester. ‘A family mantra is “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. It has been a privilege, as their daughter, to witness the change they have quietly brought about, whether in a marginalised village or through passionate advocacy on the world stage.’

Great British Life: Lady Jean at Sightsavers' One in A Billion campaign in 2017Lady Jean at Sightsavers' One in A Billion campaign in 2017 (Image: Copyright Simon Way/Sightsavers 2017)

As vice president of Sightsavers, Lady Wilson, whose husband died in 1999, remains actively involved and in recent years has been a passionate advocate of the charity’s The End is in Sight campaign to eliminate trachoma. Starting off as a bacterial infection, similar to conjunctivitis, it can be easily treated. If not, scarring pulls the eyelashes inward so they scrape against the eye, causing sufferers to pull out their eyelashes to reduce the intolerable pain and it eventually leading to blindness.

Looking to the future, Lady Wilson has a crystal clear view of what her hopes are for Sightsavers.

‘Prevention, prevention, prevention. Trachoma, trachoma, trachoma. More education, care and development,’ she says. ‘John always said prevention is the best thing, which is unusual in societies for people who are blind. Prevention is a great thing, we’re working very hard on that now. Education though, is the bread and butter of the future.’

Sightsavers' statistics

In 2021 Sightsavers carried out more than six million eye examinations.

The charity has delivered 1.5 billion treatments for neglected tropical diseases (NTD) and 8.3 million cataract operations.

Dispensed more than 5.3 million glasses

More than 289,000 people have been helped to live full and independent lives.

Sightsavers has pledged to invest more than £20 million in fighting NTDs between now and 2025 - when the charity celebrates its 75th anniversary - including a £5.5 million tribute to the Queen, patron of Sightsavers, to mark her Platinum Jubilee year.