Mātai News

Clear vision

The Gisborne Herald, 11 March 2023

Having swapped the big city “rat race” for Gisborne 16 years ago, ophthalmologist Graham Wilson has continued to forge a successful career and practice here and his many achievements were recognised when he was made an Honorary Clinical Associate Professor in his field. He spoke with Ben O’Brien-Leaf.

The contribution Gisborne’s Graham Wilson has made to the field of ophthalmology is summed up in one simple statement: “He has improved the lives of countless patients.” Colleagues, students and patients are unanimous in their praise of the region’s sole full-time comprehensive ophthalmologist for the past 15 years.


His recent elevation to Honorary Clinical Associate Professor of Ophthalmology (Department of Paediatrics and Child Health) at the University of Otago, Wellington) was perhaps no surprise. Ophthalmology is the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the eye, including surgery and therapy.


Dr Wilson, wife Amanda, who is an optometrist, and their Nelson-born children Madeleine (now 20) and Sebastian (17), moved from Dunedin to Gisborne in 2007. Claudia (10) was born here in 2013. A brush with cancer made them rethink quality of life and with no ophthalmologist in Gisborne, they decided to come and see how it went. It proved a lifestyle and holistic success.


“Coming to Gisborne allowed me to do things that would’ve been more difficult to do elsewhere,” Dr Wilson, 55, said. “I see my patients every day — in the supermarket, walking on the beach, playing sport. That makes me happy in my work. ‘I learn so much from my patients. Sometimes they stimulate my research. I’ve had more time to appreciate those things here than I would otherwise have had.” In 2010, Dr Wilson wrote a thesis debunking the notion that amblyopia (lazy eye) affects key outcomes in life such as income, socio-economic status, reading speed, higher education and self-esteem. Since 2017, he has led the visual component of the internationally acclaimed Dunedin Study — a detailed study of the health, development and behaviour of 1037 subjects born in 1972.

In 2022, the Dunedin Study was awarded New Zealand’s most prestigious science prize — the Rutherford Medal — and Dr Wilson described his involvement in it as “a privilege”.


Dr Wilson was born in Auckland and went to school in Auckland and Tokoroa (primary), Upper Hutt (intermediate) and Wellington College, Auckland Grammar and Tokoroa High (secondary). He went on to the Dunedin School of Medicine at the University of Otago, completing six years of medical school, two years as a junior doctor and seven years of specialist training. He was awarded fellowships at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, UK, Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, Northern Ireland and Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Sainte-Justine in Montréal, Canada. In 1998, Dr Wilson established the final exam course for eye specialists. Forty junior doctors from New Zealand and Australia spent two weeks in Dunedin Hospital annually preparing for the examination.


He has been heavily involved in education, including setting up a position at Gisborne Hospital where a selected registrar gets to train under his mentorship.

Eleven registrars from New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Malaysia have been selected for the posting over the years. While they are while in Gisborne they’re treated as one of the Wilson family.


Among those was Dr Sheng Chiong Hong, who came to Gisborne in 2014 after studying in Ireland and Malaysia.


Dr Hong and Dr Benjamin O’Keeffe founded oDocs Eye Care in 2014 and invented the world’s first open-source smartphone retinal imaging adapter (oDocs Fundus) in 2015.

“Graham practically opened the door for me to study ophthalmology,” Dr Hong said. “I was a senior house surgeon in Ireland when I first got in touch with him and when, a year later, I got a job in New Zealand as a neurosurgical registrar, I drove up to Gisborne to meet him and worked with him for just over a year. “He supported me as my career progressed, even personally funding a few of my projects. He’s a caring physician who looks after patients holistically, not just their eyes.


“Dr Wilson has earned and deserved his professorship. I believe he’ll train many more registrars who will go on to do great things.” Highly regarded both in Aotearoa and abroad. In 2017, Dr Wilson established the Microsurgery Skills course in Sydney through which every future New Zealand or Australian eye doctor must pass. He is highly regarded by colleagues here and abroad.


Dr Brendan Vote, Professor of Ophthalmology in Launceston, Tasmania, said: “I’ve known Graham for 25 years, undertook my specialist training with him and was inspired by his leadership, clinical acumen, organisational skills and exceptional knowledge.


“He was awarded the prestigious KG Howsam Medal for the highest-ranked academic performance of Australasian graduates from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmology.


“We maintain contact through our teaching roles with Otago University, preparing the next generation of ophthalmologists for their final specialist examinations.”


Professor Samantha Holdsworth, the chief executive and director of research at Gisborne-based Mātai Medical Research Institute Associate, holds Dr Wilson’s work in the highest regard.


“Graham has made exceptional contributions to the field of ophthalmology and vision research,” she said. “His leadership and findings on the relationship between eye disease and general health have advanced medical knowledge and improved the lives of countless patients.”


Away from work, Dr Wilson and his family enjoy sport and travel.


He is secretary of Gisborne Athletics Club and Amanda is a committee member.


Maddie, who was Dux and head prefect at Gisborne Girls’ High, is a talented track and field athlete — with a focus on the high jump — and she (athletics) and Sebastian (basketball) are former members of the Tairāwhiti Rising Legends squad.


All three Wilson children play the piano.


Amanda (nee Field), who met Dr Wilson on a Rangitata River rafting trip in 1991, works with him at their Ormond Road Kiwi Eye practice, which they set up in 2007.

“Graham’s always said that his dream job would entail being a professor in the morning and running on the beach in the afternoon,” she joked.


“He’s always written his research notes every evening and at weekends. He’s very organised and so is still able to make sure he exercises daily while working full-time.


“His gift as an educator is being able to sort the critical parts of ophthalmology and simplify those for the student. This makes him a great teacher.”


Professor Wilson enjoys being approached by a former student or attendee at a course or lecture and being told he had an impact on them as a learner, or illuminated an area of study for them.


He takes pride in hearing patients speak of the difference he has made to their quality of life.


And he is grateful to the many professors, colleagues, assistants and nurses at Gisborne Hospital, Chelsea Hospital and others who have contributed to his professional career and development in service to this and other communities.