The man who made Madiba weep

Ophthalmologist Dr Percy Amoils is the man who made Nelson Mandela weep.

In fact, before Mandela met Amoils, an ophthalmologist and inventor, he could not cry at all because he suffered from chronic dry eyes. But since Amoils operated on the former president in 1994, Mandela has been able to shed a few tears.

On Wednesday Amoils was awarded the Order of Mapungubwe: Silver for his contribution to ophthalmology.

The Order of Mapungubwe is the country's highest honour and is granted by the President for achievements in the international arena which have served the country's interests.

Amoils has been an inventor since he was 18 - his first invention was a modified jet engine.

For a year after leaving high school Amoils studied mechanical engineering before enrolling for medicine at the University of Witwatersrand.

When asked about his life as an inventor, Amoils quoted the American inventor of the light bulb, Thomas A Edison: "Invention is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration," adding: "It's bloody hard."

Amoils, who has a workshop attached to his home, said he spent his evenings working on his inventions.

"At night, after I put on my pyjamas, I go to my workshop, put on my lab coat and do my work," he said.

He said all his ideas have come to him in flashes. "Well, you read up first, you have to have an understanding of the field that you are working in. But invention always comes to the prepared mind," Amoils said.

His inventions have made retinal detachment surgery and cataract extraction simple and safe. And it was his prepared mind that saved the eyesight of a British prime minister.

In the 60s Amoils developed cryosurgery for cataracts and retinal detachments.

Retinal detachment is when the retina is pulled away from its normal position, lining the inside wall of the eye. It can lead to total loss of vision if the eye is not treated.

It's a condition former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had.

In 1983 Thatcher had undergone surgery to correct a detached retina. The laser surgery failed, but a second operation, where the Amoils Cryo Pencil was used, was successful.

The Amoils Cryo Pencil, invented in 1965, is a cylindrical tube about the length of a pencil. It has a minute opening inside the tip of the pencil through which nitrous oxide flows.

The gas expands and the temperature of the tip of the pencil drops to below minus 70°C. This allows the surgeon to work on a previously untouchable surface.

The pencil has been used worldwide for cataract extraction and retinal detachment.

Amoils went on to pioneer cryosurgery in the UK for gynaecology, lung and heart surgery, and mouth, liver and prostate surgery.

In 1975 he won the Queen's Award for Technological Innovation in London and one of his inventions, the Amoils Ophthalmic Cryo Unit, is in the Science Museum in Kensington, London - next to the first cat-scan machine.

In 1981 Amoils was awarded the US Academy of Applied Science's highest award, the Medal of Honour, for his services to humanity.

He received the award with co-operation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University for the invention of the Amoils Cryo Pencil and his research into cryosurgery.

Over the years Amoils has produced a number of inventions to assist in the practise of ophthalmology.

Over the last 18 years his inventions include many in the field of refractive surgery for the correction of near- and far-sight and astigmatism.

His rotary epithelial scrubber eliminates the need to cut and weaken the cornea and prevents ectasia - or bulging of the cornea - as well as the occurrence of dry eye.

More accurate refractive correction is possible with less glare and night driving problems. It is the standard method in the US Armed Forces.

So the recognition he has received by being awarded the Order of Mapungubwe is something that Amoils cherishes.

"I'm very thrilled that President Thabo Mbeki has bestowed this award on me," Amoils said.

He still thinks there needs to be a more concentrated drive by government to support innovation and inventions.

"The big problem is that many local institutions and universities don't appreciate the meaning and the power of creativity," Amoils said.

He said it was probably one of the reasons why South Africa only took out as little as 200 US patents a year.

He said if South Africa truly wanted to lead an African renaissance, it could not do so without actively supporting and developing inventors. His maxim has always been: "Dream no little dreams, because they have no magic to stir man's blood."


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