An Interview with Don Mitchell – the first NVRI director

Using funds provided by the Victorian Government and generous ongoing support from Lions International, the NVRI appointed its first full time Director in 1978. Dr Donald E Mitchell joined the NVRI having qualified in optometry at the University of Melbourne and trained in research at the University of California, the University of Cambridge and Dalhousie University. Don is now Professor Emeritus at the Dalhousie University, having returned to Canada after his time at the NVRI to continue a long career in vision research.

Can you tell us a bit about your time at the NVRI?

I was the first director and was approached for this role by Barry Cole whilst I was on my first sabbatical leave at the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at Australian National University (ANU) in 1977. The offer was made at the end of my research visit to Canberra, so I gave a preliminary positive response subject to a “cooling-off” period while I returned to Dalhousie University in Canada to consider my options. I did not change my mind and opted to take a 2 year leave of absence to take up this new and very challenging position. I arrived in Sydney in early July 1978 and met with David and Sheila Crewther who I hoped could join me at the NVRI (subject to funding). I recall that we also met with some people from the NHMRC granting agency regarding grant proposals that we had submitted. I remember I was very jet lagged!

For many reasons, I resigned the position in late 1979 to take effect on June 30, 1980. I agreed to return once or twice a year to complete projects that had been initiated. For several years, I returned each December and for periods lasting for up to 6 weeks in June. These visits had to fit with my teaching and other obligations in Canada.

Being a newly established organisation, with no track record, what attracted you to the position on offer?

The opportunity to establish the first research institute anywhere in the world that was focussed upon research issues of primary concern to optometry.


What is your fondest memory of the NVRI? Over its time, can you recall a research project that has especially stood out?

The establishment of the infrastructural/laboratory requirements for myself and Jack Pettigrew’s research projects were challenging. On an equal footing, I would list the completed clinical trial of the use of the CAM stimulator for amblyopia that resulted in 3 published papers; and the establishment of a collaborative study with Brian Cleland at the JCSMR, ANU that resulted in two published papers. We also established a monthly meeting of researchers in vision in the Melbourne area (the Melbourne Vision Group) that included people from the University of Melbourne and Monash University (Ross Day and Beryl MacKenzie). The meeting was always followed by dinner at one of the restaurants on Lygon Street.


What was the biggest challenge during your time as Director at the NVRI?

To make the case for a sufficiently large financial base to support the salary of at least two senior people as well as that for support staff. It way my aim to make a successful research institute with multiple research projects.

Don Mitchell tests a treatment for amblyopia research project.
Don Mitchell tests a treatment for amblyopia research project.

How did your tenure at the NVRI help enhance your research career or of those you worked with?

My subsequent career definitely benefited from the experience working closely with Jack Pettigrew and exposure to clinicians and their concerns.


Having come so far and only looking forward to conquering new heights, where do you see NVRI in the next 50 years?

One of the long-term goals I proposed at the time was the eventual promotion of new tests of visual functions that could be translated to clinical use for detection of abnormalities of visual processing that might occur in early stages of diseases at various levels of the visual pathways. The current NVRI clinical research program shares this common goal.


Can you describe your experience with/at the NVRI in two sentences?

My experience could be summarized in two words- exhilaration and frustration. Exhilaration that accompanied the fast establishment of a research program, and frustration with the administrative challenges of securing a firm financial footing.

Don Mitchell with current NVRI Director Prof Michael Ibbotson (2022)
Don Mitchell with current NVRI Director Prof Michael Ibbotson (2022)