John Ovenden
Labor supporter: John Ovenden gave the Left a clearer vision

Eye man took human view


John Ovenden
Optometrist, pioneer of the treatment of dyslexia
Born Melbourne, October 8, 1925.
Died Melbourne, May 5,1999, aged 73.

MANY Victorians who wear glasses or contact lenses - indeed, many such throughout Australia - will experience a saddening change next time they have their eyesight checked - without John Ovenden, polymath and optometrist extraordinare.

For the past 30 years, John led the remarkable family optometrical practice of Ovendens. His father George hung out his shingle in 1926 in Capitol House, across Swanston Street from Melbourne Town Hall in rooms just a few floors above Walter Burley Griffin's famous Capitol Theatre.

The practice - continuing under John's eldest daughter Jenny - might have been titled "lens-makers to the Left". Labor prime minister John Curtin went to Ovendens for his spectacles; so did Bob Hawke. Patients from the trade union movement are numberless, stretching back to old-time greats such as Albert Monk and Percy Clarey.

John remembered that as a schoolboy he was advised by Curtin to learn Japanese - which he did, brilliantly. Even as prime minister under the desperate pressures of the Pacific War, Curtin remained a dropper-in for cups of tea at the Ovendern family home, which was an old cottage in East Melbourne. Every room, even the bathroom, was lined to the ceiling with books. Without the internal support of those bookshelves, that house would certainly have collapsed.

The family was established in Melbourne in the 19th century by Joseph Ovenden, RN, who came from England as "captain of the fo'c'sle' in the warship Victoria, the founding flagship of the colony's miniature navy. A picture of this no-nonsense old salt hangs in the Ovenden consulting rooms today.

The family's connection with Curtin derived from their common membership of the old Victorian Socialist Party, those salt-of-the-earth, principled radicals who had fought against conscription in World War I. It is said that Curtin heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor while listening to the radio in the Ovenden home.

John's education began at Yarra Park primary. continued at Hawthorn West central school. and then at Melbourne High, Victoria's closest counterpart to Sydney's famous Fort Street. His scholastic career was brilliant as he shined equally in science and languages, and became a leader affairs. He completed his tertiary entrance qualifications so young that he had to cool his heels for a year before Melbourne University would let him start. He graduated from its College of Optometry, and joined his father George in the practice.

During his university years he maintained the family's radical loyalties through the influential Melbourne University Labor Club. He was wary of the Stalinists who sought to control the club from the shadows, and equally cautious of the Catholic Action wing on the Right.

When I stood as an Independent candidate at the Victorian State election of 1947, John was my campaign manager. Barely into his 20s, the lad with the brilliant organisational flair ran a campaign that was the envy of some established party candidates. Though not untouched later by disillusion with the modern Labor Party, he retained in school membership in its Hawthorn branch until his death.

John's life was never one of optometrical routine. of mere refraction and prescribing of spectacles. He took a boisterous interest in his patients as human beings: many had been friends their whole lives, and their children became patients in turn.

A visit to the Ovenden consulting rooms was an event. They might in other hands have been meagre and spartan, but the walls were hung with paintings, and with the originals of famous political cartoons by Australia's greatest black-and-white artists.

John worked at the frontier of his science, and in his later years contributed brilliantly to the understanding and management of dyslexia, that frustrating inability to read which holds many good minds back from achievement. His use of coloured lenses (or transparent coloured overlays on the page) continues with astonishing results: hardly a failure in thousands of cases treated. A recent article in New Scientist magazine suggests that the method is now receiving the mainstream respect it deserves.

John maintained his omnivorous reading and his strenuous habit of weekend bushwalking. This last was no aimless and easy rambling but hard slogging up the steepest tracks in the Victorian Alps. Recently he had, with minute, metre-by-metre pertinacity, been following the route of the explorers Hume and Hovell. He concluded that the accepted ideas of their precise track contain many errors. It is to be hoped that his maps and notes - all in the meticulous Ovenden mode - will one day be published.

In 1949 John married fellow student Marjory Francis. who died in 1997. He is survived by their four daughters - Jenny, Penny, Ruth and Belinda - and 12 grandchildren.

John Ovenden was a wonderful friend to hundreds. Gruff sometimes on the surface, he was unfailingly kind, and never in a hurry for you to vacate the optometical chair. From his remarkable memory he would share generously his amazing range of knowledge of almost every subject under the sun.

You may have gone to John with the intention of having your eyes tested, but you came away with your spirits uplifted.

Peter Ryan
Peter Ryan works at the Supreme Court of Victoria