Ida Mann

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Ida Mann
File:Ida Caroline Mann.jpg
Born 6 February 1893
West Hampstead, London
Died 18 November 1983
Perth, Western Australia
Fields Ophthalmology
Institutions University of Oxford
Alma mater London School of Medicine for Women

Dame Ida Caroline Mann, DBE, FRCS (6 February 1893 in West Hampstead, London – 18 November 1983) 'a distinguished ophthalmologist...equally well known for her pioneering research work on embryology and development of the eye, and on the influences of genetic and social factors on the incidence and severity of eye disease throughout the world'.[1] She was inducted into the Ophthalmology Hall of Fame in 2007.

She diagnosed a trachoma epidemic amongst Indigenous people in the Kimberleys and travelled extensively in Western Australia to examine and treat Indigenous people with trachoma. Mann became convinced that better housing and sanitation, rather than administration of antibiotics, would improve this health crisis.


Ida Caroline Mann was educated at Wycombe House School, Hampstead, London.[2] She passed the Civil Service Girl Clerk's examination and took a job at the Post Office Savings Bank.[3] Despite opposition from her father, she applied to study medicine at the London School of Medicine for Women, the only medical school which was open to women at that time. She passed the matriculation examination in 1914, one of only eight women out of hundreds of passes.[4] She completed her studies, 'with no trouble and intense delight' (Mann: The Chase), and qualified Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MB, BS) in 1920.[5]

Early career

After qualification she had no clear idea about specialising and applied for all available positions as a houseman (a junior role for newly qualified doctors). She was appointed as the Ophthalmic House Surgeon at St Mary's Hospital, London, under Leslie Paton and Frank Juler.[6] Thus began a lifelong passion for ophthalmic research and practice. During her medical studies she had developed an interest in embryology, working alongside Professor J.E.S. Frazer. Now she combined this interest with ophthalmology and wrote her thesis on the embryology of the human eye, for which she was awarded her D.Sc. in 1924.[7] To further her career she qualified in general surgery, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1924.[8] Only six other women were Fellows at this time.[9]

Mann was ambitious and determined to reach the top in her chosen field. To her this meant securing an honorary staff post at Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, and running her own private practice on Harley Street, London.[10] She had achieved both by 1927: a remarkably swift rise for a woman in a male-dominated field.[11] Her stepping stones had been the following posts: Junior Clinical Assistant at Moorfields (1921); staff appointment at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital for Women (1922); Senior Clinical Assistant to Mr. A.C. Hudson at Moorfields (1922); Pathologist and Assistant Surgeon to Mr. Ernest Lane at the Central London Ophthalmic Hospital (1925); staff appointment at the Central London Eye Hospital (1925).

Second World War

At the outbreak of war, Moorfields Eye Hospital was commandeered as a first aid post and the staff were dispersed. The premises in which Mann conducted her private practice were also closed down by the landlord. She found new premises for her own practice and then set about re-siting Moorfields. She found hospital premises in Edgware (10 miles from central London), belonging to the Priory of the Holy Sepulchre, secured the lease, moved the nursing staff there and saw the gradual return of the surgical staff.[12] There was still a need for a central London site to treat ophthalmic emergencies, and by a mixture of bravado and sheer energy, she managed to re-occupy part of the old Moorfields Hospital on City Road, which remained operational throughout the war despite being bombed.

In 1940 she undertook some personal research on the treatment of mustard gas burns of the eye, using laboratories belonging to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund at Mill Hill. It was here that she met her future husband, Professor William 'Bill' Gye, who was the director. When the results of her private research became known, she was put in charge of one of the research teams of the Chemical Defence Research Department under the Ministry of Supply. Working with her friend, Davidine Pullinger, and the biochemist, Antoinette 'Toni' Pirie, she worked out the entire pathology of mustard gas keratitis, which afflicted soldiers from the First World War some ten to fifteen years after they had survived a mustard gas attack. Although the team did not find a cure, they were able to alleviate symptoms through the use of contact lenses.[13] They continued working throughout the war on the effects of various chemicals on the eyes, including British Anti-Lewisite and penicillin.


During the war, honorary staff were not allowed to resign from their posts at civilian hospitals. Therefore, when Mann applied for, and was appointed to, the post of Margaret Ogilvy Reader in Ophthalmology at the University of Oxford in 1941, she was obliged to combine this research and teaching post with her work at Moorfields in London, her work on the Chemical Defence Research team and her work as a private consultant in London and Oxford. During her tenure at Oxford, she oversaw the building of the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology, appointed Toni Pirie as biochemist, replaced the matron with a more competent sister from Moorfields, restarted the diploma courses for post-graduates, inaugurated the Orthoptic School and re-instituted the Oxford Ophthalmological Congress. In her own words, she had 'cleared the Augean stable' in nine months.[14] Her efforts were recognised by the university in 1945 when she was given a personal professorship: the first woman to receive one at Oxford. She was Titular Professor there from January 1945 until 30 September 1947. Mann was also a Fellow of St Hugh's College, Oxford.


Mann became acquainted with Bill Gye, the Director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund at Mill Hill, and his wife, Elsa, during the war. After Elsa's death from cancer, Mann's friendship with Bill grew and they were married in December 1944. Her midwifery placements in the 1920s had deterred her from having children. Bill already had three sons from his first marriage, so the couple embarked happily on their married life, content for it to be childless. Mann did not change her name on marriage, as the complications arising from having two Professor Gyes in the same household were easily foreseen.


Mann had first visited Australia in 1939 as the British Medical Association's representative at the 1st Annual General Meeting of the Ophthalmological Society of Australia (B.M.A.). She flew there in an Imperial Airways Flying Boat, which took a week to fly at low altitude from Southampton to Melbourne. She gave a number of papers and made the return journey 'with the feeling that the gloom of Europe would soon descend, and that this brilliant, sunny and friendly land would be blotted from my memory' (Mann: The Chase).[15] However this was not to be the end of Ida's relationship with Australia. In 1949 she and her husband set off for Perth and Melbourne on an autumn cruise.[16] This 'holiday' was in fact a tentative step to a new life. The introduction of the National Health Service in Britain had drastically changed Ida's work and she was dissatisfied with the impact on ophthalmology. Perhaps more pressingly her husband had retired from Mill Hill and was suffering from ill-health which was exacerbated by the English winters. They were immediately smitten with Perth and within a short time Ida purchased a bungalow in Dalkeith, resigned from Moorfields, and arranged for all their belongings to be shipped to Australia.[17] Here they conducted experiments on cancer viruses using in-bred strains of mice to ensure consistency.[18] Ida also started a private practice as an ophthalmologist, which was always her insurance against economic uncertainty.[19]

Trachoma research

Bill died in 1952, leaving her bereft, 'I was unhinged; so tired that I was almost insane' (Mann: The Chase).[20] She regained her balance by working and travelling. Shortly after his death she took an assignment in the Kimberleys reporting on the incidence of eye disease for the Western Australia Public Health Department. This 'short' assignment extended to four years and provided incontrovertible proof of endemic trachoma amongst the indigenous population.[21] Trachoma is an infectious disease and, if left untreated, can lead to blindness. This was an uncomfortable finding for the Public Health Department, as trachoma was thought to have been eradicated in Australia at the time. It was described in textbooks as 'a disease of poverty, ignorance and dirt'. Ida continued her research on and treatment of trachoma for many years. She conducted surveys as far afield as Papua New Guinea and Taiwan, investigating the spread of the disease, its possible causes and the most effective treatment for each cultural group.

She travelled extensively throughout Australia and Oceania studying the incidence of eye disease in different races and cultures, with particular reference to the Aboriginal people. This research produced the classic work, Culture, Race, Climate and Eye Disease (1966).

Mann published extensively in the area of eye anatomy and eye disease, publishing many scientific articles and several books. She also wrote on her travels and findings relating to trachoma, published under her married name Ida Gye or a pseudonym, Caroline Gye. These were China 13 and The Cockney and the Crocodile.

She was appointed CBE in 1950 and DBE in 1980 for services to the welfare of Aboriginal people. She received an honorary Doctor of Science from Murdoch University (Perth, Western Australia) in 1983. She died at her home in Perth later the same year, aged 90.


  • Ida Mann, The Development of the Human Eye (Cambridge, 1928)
  • Ida Mann, Developmental Abnormalities of the Eye (Cambridge, 1937)
  • Ida Mann and Antoinette Pirie, The Science of Seeing (Harmondsworth, 1946)
  • Ida Mann, Culture, Race, Climate and Eye Disease (Illinois, 1966)
  • Caroline Gye, The Cockney and the Crocodile (London, 1962)
  • Caroline Gye, China 13 (London, 1964)


  1. J.M. Tiffany, 'Mann, Dame Ida Caroline (1893–1983)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004)
  2. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), p.27
  3. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), p.46
  4. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), pp.48–49
  5. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), p.64
  6. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), p.66
  7. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), p.67
  8. J.M. Tiffany, 'Mann, Dame Ida Caroline (1893–1983)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004)
  9. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), p.68
  10. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), p.67
  11. J.M. Tiffany, 'Mann, Dame Ida Caroline (1893–1983)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004)
  12. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), pp.114–5
  13. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), pp.117–8
  14. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), pp.127–8
  15. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), pp.108–11
  16. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), p.138
  17. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), pp.140–1
  18. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), pp.141–2
  19. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), p.143
  20. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), p.143
  21. Ida Mann, The Chase (Fremantle, 1986), pp.147ff.

Further reading

  • Mann, Ida, The Chase: an autobiography, edited by Ros Golding (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1986)
  • Radi, Heather (editor), 200 Australian Women, Women's Press: Sydney, 1988.

External links