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The Saks Story

Tribute to the Saks family – Ed

Alan Saks, Peter Brauer, Gwenffyl Saks, Sidney Saks and Terry Brauer

The Saks family’s role in the development and progression of optometry to the profession it is today, was nothing short of profound. The Saks’ involvement in optometry spans three generations. It all started with JL Saks, who started in practice in 1922. He was a legend in our time. JL passed the baton to his sons Brian and Sidney, who continued to serve the profession in office for many years. Sid’s son Alan Saks made his mark in optometry in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, as well as in the international arena as an author, lecturer and raconteur. Peter Brauer, married Sid’s daughter Terry and joined the family practice. He continued the family tradition by becoming president of the SAOA and serving the profession in several different capacities, for which he received a Distinguished Service Award. To put their contribution to optometry into perspective, one must recognise their achievements and the awards bestowed on them.

JL Saks served as President of the South African Optometric Association several times. The SAOA conferred Honorary Life Fellowship on JL in 1946 and in 1951, conferred upon him its highest award, that of Honorary Life President, in recognition of outstanding contribution to the profession. He also served as Editor of the SA Optometric Journal. At the Association’s Golden Jubilee congress in 1974 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award. At the same congress Professor Henry Peters, president of the prestigious American Academy of Optometry, conferred the award of Honorary Life Fellowship (FAAO), of the academy upon Saks, the only non-American ever, to receive this award. His successful defense of a historic court action in 1931 established the professional status of optometry in South Africa and the case Rex vs. Saks, became a cornerstone of optometric legislation in many parts of the Western World.

Brian Saks served as President of the SAOA no less than three times. He was a long-standing member of The Council of the SAOA. He served as President of the Professional Board of Optometry (HPCSA) for over twenty years. Moreover, he was awarded Honorary Life Vice-Presidency as well as Honorary Life Presidency by the SAOA. Brian passed away in 2000.

Sidney Saks also served on the Council of the SAOA for many years, as Vice President as well as President. He also served on the Professional Board of Optometry (HPCSA) for exactly twenty years. The prestigious Life Presidency award was bestowed on him (only ever awarded once). He also received Honorary Life Presidency as well as Distinguished Service Award from the SAOA. In September 2017, Sidney Saks retired from clinical optometric practice, after a career spanning sixty-seven years.

One must salute JL Saks for the legacy he left behind. The Saks family have been practicing optometry in Pretoria for ninety-six years! Vision was fortunate to step down memory lane in an interview with Sid, to reflect on his remarkable career, as well as recall some of the history and milestones of optometry in South Africa.

Vision would like to pay tribute to the Saks family for their contribution to optometry.

Sidney Saks Interview

Ed – How did life in Pretoria start for the Saks Clan?

SS – My father, JL Saks was a qualified practicing pharmacist in the days when pharmacists made up their medications from raw materials in the form of powders and liquids. I still have some of his formulae and prescriptions that he used, to make up medicine for headaches, colds and digestive ailments. Dad felt the need to study further and went to London to do an advanced post graduate course. While he was there, he was made aware of courses offered by the various Optical Associations (BOA and SMC), where he trained and passed the fellowship examinations available. This qualified him to practice optics. On his return, he purchased an existing optical business near Church Square, Pretoria (1922). He subsequently re-located to a less commercial environment.

Ed – What are your earliest memories of optometry in South Africa?

SS – My father JL, had his practice in the city centre. It was already a professional practice, even though it was in a commercial arcade. He only referred to those who consulted him as patients and the referrals he received. The only advertising, I recall were small panels in the trams (then the main form of city transport), which stated in bold letters; “If it’s eyes, see Saks”.

Ed– How did you and your brother Brian end up as optometrists?

SS – At the end of the second world war, Brian decided that he would follow in his father’s foot-steps. After boarding school in Cape Town, at the age of eighteen, he enrolled at the Northampton Polytechnic (now City University). He flew to the United Kingdom in one of the first commercial flights, in a converted troop carrier. He faced some tough challenges living alone in basic digs in London. He completed his studies successfully and passed both the FBOA and FSMC exams, before returning to South Africa to join JL in practice. At that time, the only training for opticians in South Africa was a part time course at the Technical College in Johannesburg, which JL considered unsuitable for a future associate in his practice.

I completed my matric (First Class, with a distinction in mathematics) at the age of fifteen, at Pretoria Boys High School. I enrolled at Wits University to study mathematics, applied mathematics, physics and chemistry, with the intention of going on to an architecture or engineering career. I was only sixteen, and in 1946, my classmates were all the twenty-six year olds, who returned from the war. I had no social life, just worked hard, but attained good results.

Ed – Was there an optometry course in existence?

SS – The part-time course had continued until the end of 1947, when the South African Optometric Association engineered the first full-time Diploma in Optometry. The programme was headed by Mr. E W (Ted) Woodruff at the Witwatersrand Technicon. My Wits subjects fitted perfectly and I enrolled at the Technicon with the first thirteen students. Eight of us completed the two-year course, leading to a Diploma in Optometry.

Ed – Where was the first Saks practice?

SS – Not far from Church Square, Pretoria CBD in 1922. It was a street-front-shop style with windows. While all the competition advertised free sight tests, JL charged a fee for his consultation.

Ed – Tell us about the court case; Rex vs JL Saks

SS – In 1930, he was charged for practicing medicine without a license in the infamous criminal case of Rex vs JL Saks. This was a vendetta, thrust upon optometry by some members of the ophthalmological establishment of the day. JL faced charges based on two issues: one, that he charged a professional fee for his services, and two; that he made a diagnosis in the case of each of the two young students, who were sent to him as an entrapment ploy. The first chap was sent to buy glasses to alleviate red eyes. JL advised that glasses are not the solution and that he should accordingly, consult a medical officer. The second young man complained of headaches, for which, he had come to buy spectacles as the means of obtaining relief. Again, JL advised that glasses were not the answer to his problem and that he should seek advice and treatment from a medical practitioner. Surprisingly, the magistrate found JL guilty of the criminal charges against him! In the dark days of the 1930 depression, JL could not afford to take the matter to the Appeal Court. However, as justice would have it, he was approached by an advocate (unknown to JL), who advised him that there had been a gross miscarriage of justice and that he was prepared to intercede pro Deo and take the matter to the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein. They won the appeal and the judge strongly criticising the magistrate for his finding, which he immediately overturned. JL was able to continue in practice as he had done before. The significance of this judgement became internationally recognised as a basic recognition of the right to practice optometry as a profession, including the charging of fees for services, as compared to “selling glasses”. The legal precedent was thus established, and is referred to in Professor Henry W Hofstetter’s book, The History and Development of the Profession of Optometry Worldwide.

Ed – Can you recall when the SAOA was first formed?

SS – By 1932 there was an Association. Selwyn Super and I are probably the only two living optometrists who can reflect on this history.

Ed – Both you and Brian became very involved in the SAOA – tell us more.

SS – JL was the leading figure in this regard. Both Brian and I served on the Council of the SAOA from our early days in practice. This included thousands of hours travelling to meetings in Johannesburg, then a two-hour drive from Pretoria. We served on various committees, following JL, who was President and a devoted leader of the Profession many times. Brian served the role as President a number of times, starting in 1968. Both JL and Brian were devoted and excellent leaders and were responsible for many of the advances the Profession made in those days.

The big battle of those times was raising the standard of professional practice, quality of education, and the aim was to achieve professional status and registration with the South African Medical and Dental Council. Brian, I think, served 3 terms as President, and I became President in 1971.

Ed – I can remember when the SAOA AGM was always held at the Sunnyside Park Hotel in Johannesburg, it was always packed out – it was different then, wasn’t it?

SS – Yes indeed, because the leadership then were prepared to give generously of their time and talents to build a profession and fighting for recognition as such. Apart from JL Saks, the leadership included names like Gordon Dalgleish, Ralph Coates (Editor of the Journal, SA Optometrist), Jack Raphael, AR de Villiers, George Nelson and his wife, (Miss Prime, I think). She was a tyrant as an examiner in Optics and Dispensing and served for many years on the Education Committee and Examination Board of the SAOA. Sadly, because these are names drawn from memories of fifty years ago, there are others of that time, who made huge contributions whose names I cannot at present recall. They were followed by Brian Saks, Selwyn Super, Bertie Beiles, myself, Ken Turnbull, Grant Jenkins, Flip Bruwer, Cliff Harrisberg, Bokkie Wainer. Many of these, served as Presidents and Board Members of the SA Optometric Association. Their names should be engraved on a Roll of Honour.

Ed – Optometry only attained professional status in, I think, 1970.

SS – And so, another phase began when the shopkeepers went behind curtains! The Act requiring compulsory Registration with the then S A Medical and Dental Council and the Health Professions Council came into effect in 1973. It was then that the first Professional Board for Optometrists and Optical Dispensers was formed, and elections were held .

Ed – How long was your career in optometry and what were some of the high-lights?

SS – After completing my studies at the end of 1949 I joined JL and my brother, Brian in practice in January 1950. In 1957 JL and Brian sent me to America where through an amazing series of circumstances, I was able to spend time with top optometrists in every field of optometry as guests in both their homes and practices throughout America.I probably learnt more “applied optometric practice” during these many months than I could have done in 3 years of full-time attendance at Optometry School.

Ed – What were the biggest game changers over the years for you?

SS – Probably the most influential of these was being invited to spend time with George Jessen in his own private practice when, at the time, Wesley Jessen and the Plastic Contact Lens Company, were the leaders in the contact lens industry world-wide. During this time, George invited me as his guest, to participate in a “World Contact Lens Congress” in New York, where the participants were exposed to many of the leaders in the development of contact lens fitting internationally. This, apart from sitting in on his daily patient consultations. Moreover, he insisted that when I returned to South Africa, I was to send him a summary of every CL fitting I carried out, with full details of my findings and my rationale for ordering the lenses, which he had made in his personal contact lens lab. I believe to this day, there was no-one who had more influence on the success of Corneal Contact Lens fitting world-wide than George Jessen.

My contact lens practice grew at a remarkable rate and I was booked up with fifteen appointments a day, for three months in advance, as a result. I finally retired in September 2017, after 67 years of practice.

A ground-breaking event happened in 1971. While I was vice President of the SAOA, I led a delegation of Professors of Optometry from America to Pretoria University to meet the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and the Professor of Ophthalmology, to dissuade them from establishing an optometry department in the faculty of medicine. The outcome was, that optometry did not develop as a sub-department of ophthalmology but could develop as an independent profession.

Ed – Where is the Saks practice today?

SS – The Saks practice, now in its ninety-sixth year, is an independent, professional practice which does not rely on advertising or promotional gimmicks and succeeds from ongoing referrals from satisfied patients and inter-professional referrals. There are two suburban practices, with four optometrists.

Ed – Who else from both you and Brian’s families became involved.

SS – Peter Brauer, who is married to my daughter Terry, and my son Alan, are both optometrists. Alan emigrated to New Zealand in 1994 and now lives in Australia, where he writes for MIVISION, an optometric journal. Peter also served as President of the SAOA.

Ed – To close, give us your final reflection.

SS – Optometry remains a profession where one can practice successfully without advertising and promotional gimmicks. Success in optometry, used to be based on clinical skills, personality, integrity, both personal and professional and hard work. However, advertising, including price advertising, has led to a drop in the esteem and status of optometry as a profession. The developments in medical schemes, leading to contractual arrangements and managed care, has hurt optometry as well as other health care professions.


LEFT: Sidney Saks with longstanding partner, Dr Vincent Taylor, holding Sid’s Life Presidency Award
MIDDLE: Brian Saks
RIGHT: Sidney Saks with Gwenffyl Saks