Dr Keith Barnett OBE
19th April 1929 – 10th March 2009
Dr Keith Barnett, who died aged 79, has been described as a “remarkable and wonderful man” by his colleagues. He dedicated his life to ophthalmology. He had a special interest in hereditary eye disease and, despite officially retiring in 1996, returned to the Animal Health Trust in 1997, where he continued to work, and enjoy life, right to the end.
Keith Chartres Barnett was born in Brighouse, Yorkshire, in April 1929. He lived with his father Alfred, mother Vera and brother Jim, 18 months his junior. “Keith was a great brother,” said Jim. “I would say we were just two typical brothers growing up, but we weren’t, because we were always friends. We didn’t fight.”
Keith knew from the tender age of five that he wanted to be a vet. The Barnett household was always full of animals of all species, including varieties of insects and reptiles! Unlike most children who grow up crazy about animals, Keith never grew out of it, and turned out to be one of the country’s best loved and most successful vets.
The family moved to Southampton when the boys were of school age. When they finished school, Keith stayed an extra year to complete a High School Certificate in Latin, the equivalent of a current A Level. This qualification was essential for him to study to become a vet. During this course, Keith spent a year doing national service. He was posted just eight miles away from home in Winchester with the Royal Army Dental Corps.
In 1949, Keith enrolled at The Royal Veterinary College (RVC), the first step towards a lifetime commitment to the veterinary profession. Keith adored the time he spent at the RVC. After graduating in 1956, he spent a short period in general practice before returning to the RVC as a House Surgeon at the Beaumont Animal Hospital. Here he started his PhD studies, looking at canine retinopathies which he completed in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Studies at the University of Cambridge. Whilst at Cambridge, he started a Unit of Comparative Ophthalmology – a feat he would repeat a few years later at the Animal Health Trust – and was appointed Assistant Director of Research. During his time there, he created an internationally renowned centre of excellence.
Keith was awarded the Francis Hogg Prize in 1968, an award presented by the Council of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons “to the person who has done the most serviceable work towards the advancement of small animal practice.” This was shortly followed in 1971 with two more prizes: The Simon Award from the British Small Animal Veterinary Association “for outstanding contributions in the field of veterinary surgery” and the George Fleming Prize from the British Veterinary Journal “for the prize-winning article of the year.”
Writing articles was something Keith Barnett was definitely no stranger to. During his 53 -year veterinary career, he wrote and contributed to over 130 scientific articles, journals and books. He was a strong believer in learning something new every day, and never stopped studying to remain at the forefront of veterinary ophthalmic expertise.
In 1975, Keith joined the Animal Health Trust in Kentford, near Newmarket, Suffolk, a place which turned out to mean so much to him. He remained working right up until his death.
Keith came to the Animal Health Trust to establish the Unit of Comparative Ophthalmology. He developed this into a unique specialist veterinary ophthalmology referral service and also dedicated resource to investigating ocular disease in animals. Under his guidance and help, the Unit made a huge impact in veterinary ophthalmology and continues to thrive today.
Not long after Keith started at the AHT, he also took over as Head of the Centre for Small Animal Studies. He was a frequent speaker at national and international meetings where he inspired literally thousands of his veterinary colleagues.
Outside work, Keith was a keen collector of antiques. He enjoyed buying old houses, and finding unusual antiques. He was also an art lover, favouring pieces featuring heavy horses or dogs, particularly his beloved Labrador. During his life, Keith owned seven Labradors, a breed he was especially fond of thanks to his work with Guide Dogs for the Blind.
For many years Keith was the principle examiner of all potential guide dogs. As a direct result of his expertise and diligence, hereditary eye problems through the Guide Dog breeding scheme became a rarity. He also spent time as a member of the General Council specialising in veterinary matters. Neil Ewart, of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, said, “Dr Barnett always showed the qualities of a true expert. He would always patiently and thoroughly explain his findings to any member of staff without talking down to them. I last saw him walking around Crufts and he appeared to be his usual cheerful self and I was pleased to have had one last conversation with him when he asked after so many old acquaintances.”
Keith also did a lot of work with Canine Partners, where he was a Trustee for four years. As with the Guide Dogs, Keith examined the eyes of the charity’s assistance dogs. Terry Knott, CEO of Canine Partners, said, “A kinder, more articulate, professional yet gentle and encouraging soul would be hard to find.”
After being recommended by the AHT, and a number of other organisations he worked with, Keith was awarded an OBE in 1993 for Services to the Veterinary Profession, a merit he had truly earned after years of hard work and dedicated care. He was further honoured in 2008 when he was made an Honorary Vice President of the Animal Health Trust.
Keith officially retired from the Animal Health Trust in 1996, but couldn’t bear to be away from the job he loved doing so much, so returned to work part-time less than a year later. Specialising in hereditary ocular disease, and the genetics behind it, Keith carried out eye examinations on litters of puppies, a job he thoroughly enjoyed.
In the summer of 2008, however, he was forced to leave work once more following a diagnosis of oesophageal cancer. He came through the intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy regime with flying colours, and, at the beginning of 2009, returned to the AHT to continue the work he so loved.
In March this year, just days before he died, Keith spent three days in Birmingham, at Crufts, meeting old friends and dog breeders. He said he had “a wonderful time” at Crufts, and thoroughly enjoyed the days he spent there, including meals out with colleagues in the evenings where he was still a lot of fun and a true gentleman.
Keith made an unparalleled contribution to canine ophthalmology. This impact will continue to make a difference to the health of dogs for many years to come. He will be greatly missed by many. Our thoughts and condolences are with Keith’s family and friends.
A memorial service for Keith will be held on Thursday 7th May at 2pm at St Mary’s Church, Honey Hill, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Car parking is recommended in Cotton Lane, which is about ten minutes away from the church.
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