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Eyesight expert and safety campaigner

By Phoebe Falconer

Sir Randal Elliott, eye surgeon, Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order of St John. Died aged 87.
Sir Randal Elliott. Photo / NZ Herald.
Sir Randal Elliott. Photo / NZ Herald.

Sir Randal Elliott was a distinguished New Zealand eye surgeon, a prime influence on the reorganisation of the Order of St John, and a campaigner for safety glass.

He trained at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and moved to the Institute of Ophthalmology in London for instruction in eye surgery.

On returning to New Zealand, he went to Wellington Public Hospital, where he remained in various capacities for 35 years.

During the 1960s Dr Elliott travelled extensively in the Pacific and Asia, carrying out eye operations and training local doctors in ophthalmology techniques. He visited and worked in Samoa, Fiji, Malaya, Thailand and Borneo. A planned visit to Vietnam in 1972 was delayed for some months because of the war, but he eventually reached the hospital in Qui Nhon to join a New Zealand surgical team already stationed there. He pushed for legislation to allow the removal of eye tissue from dead hospital patients, particularly corneas, so that they could be used to restore sight to the blind.

A longtime member of the Order of St John, he served as chancellor, became a Knight of St John, and then Bailiff Grand Cross, the order's highest honour. At the time of his award, only two other New Zealanders had been so honoured, one of them Dr Elliott's father, Sir James Elliott.

During his tenure as Chancellor of the order, he pushed for efficiency improvements in the ambulance, first aid and welfare services. The first-aid arm increased the number of instructors, and industrial in-house courses were charged for, instead of being free. Most importantly, he oversaw the merging of the St John Ambulance Association with the St John Brigade, to form one unit to be known simply as St John.

But Randal Elliott was first and foremost a doctor. The welfare of his patients and the public were of fundamental concern. He was not one to hold back when he felt we were on the wrong track. "We are a feckless community," he told a conference in 1982. "We bump off our children in extraordinary numbers - we drown them, we kill them in motorcars. Our roads are designed to kill. We pollute ourselves with cigarettes and liquor. We eat far too many calories."

This concern for public welfare led him to accept a position as the first chairman of the Road Safety Trust in 1989. He played a part in making laminated windscreens compulsory in cars. He worked towards the banning of plate glass and mesh glass in public areas because of the danger of people walking into them.

In the 1970s he was the president of the New Zealand Medical Association, after a term as chairman of the Medical Association of New Zealand.

Randal Forbes Elliott was born in Wellington in 1922, a member of a medical dynasty. His father, Sir James Elliott, was a doctor and medical journalist, editing the New Zealand Medical Journal for many years, and both of Randal's brothers, Kennedy and Robert, trained as doctors. Randal Elliott was educated at Wanganui Collegiate School, and later studied at Victoria and Otago Universities.

During World War II he served with the 1st Battalion, Wellington Regiment, and the Otago University Medical Corps. He was later a medical officer with the Royal NZ Air Force, serving in Sarawak, Sabah and Vietnam.

Dr Randal Elliott was knighted in 1977. He is survived by his seven children and their families. His wife Pauline died last year.

- NZ Herald

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