An old photo showing many original founding members of Orbis, sitting in a boardroom round a table

Our history

Orbis UK is an affiliate of Orbis International, a global charity that brings people together to fight avoidable blindness. Find out more about the amazing story behind the creation of Orbis.

Turning an Idea Into Reality

Orbis is the result of a unique and lasting alliance forged between the medical and aviation industries. In the 1970s, leaders of these two industries came together to create the plan that led to the foundation of Orbis. We knew that the high costs of tuition, international travel and accommodation prevented most doctors and nurses in low-income countries from participating in overseas training programmes. Even when they could afford to study abroad, their opportunity for direct clinical experience was limited because strict licensing laws often prevented them from performing surgery.

Dr. David Paton first thought of the idea of project Orbis

1973 - Project Orbis Launches

Project Orbis is officially launched in 1973 to deliver training to the eyes of the world. In Latin Orbis means “Of the Eye” and in Greek it means “around the world.”

1982 - Flying Eye Hospital Takes Off

Out of this experience came the idea for a mobile teaching hospital and the inspiration for the world’s only Flying Eye Hospital. Hence, Project Orbis International was born. This led to a unique and lasting alliance between aviation and medicine. With help from other supporters like Betsy Trippe DeVecchi, Niles Bond, George Gould, Thomas Knight, Charles Lord, J. Wright Rumbough and A.L. Ueltschi, a donated plane from United Airlines, and a grant from USAID, they converted a DC-8 plane into the world’s first fully functional teaching eye hospital.

The first Flying Eye Hospital was officially christened in Houston, Texas at the Ellington Air Force Base and took off on its first project to Panama in May 1982.

The christening of the very first Flying Eye Hospital in 1982

Country Programs Emerge

As we grew over the years, we added hospital-based training programs and fellowships to our portfolio to provide additional skills-building opportunities for eye care professionals. In 1999, to build the capacity of local partners, we created long-term country programs in Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, India and Vietnam – similar programs are also underway in parts of the Latin America and the Caribbean. Our permanent offices in these countries, run by local staff, develop and implement an array of multi-year projects to improve the quality and accessibility of eye care to residents, particularly in rural areas and impoverished urban communities. Many of these programs focus on the treatment and prevention of childhood blindness, cataract, trachoma and corneal disease.

Cybersight: Online Training and Consultations

Orbis’s award winning telemedicine platform, Cybersight, is the brainchild of Dr. Eugene Helveston who first had the idea whilst visiting Cuba in the late 1990s. He realized that although it was helpful to train and teach eye teams aboard the Flying Eye Hospital, without continuity and follow-up training, lasting improvement in the skill set of local ophthalmologists was hard to achieve.

On a return trip to Cuba Dr. Helveston brought his computer and video equipment, allowing Cuban doctors to send follow-up photographs of cases to mentors in the U.S to help diagnose and treat patients. This electronic relationship would be the start of Cybersight. Dr. Helveston saw immediately the benefit of establishing these long-term and long-distance partnerships and began expanding the program.

An introduction to Cybersight

Thanks to Dr. Helveston's vision and persistence and generous support from a number of donors, Cybersight officially launched in June 2003. Today Cybersight provides long-distance mentoring and education, online courses and lectures, symposiums and case follow-up to eye teams in 199 countries. Our expert volunteers and staff provide on-demand advice for complex cases, mentoring local eye care professionals on diagnosis and treatment.

In 2021 alone, we trained almost 17,000 eye health professionals from 184 countries and regions. We added 15,000 new members, and the videos in our library received more than 4 million views.

Cybersight continues to break records as telemedicine and remote learning becomes an even bigger part of Orbis's strategy, and broader societal behavior. As many sectors and industries begin to shift towards online learning, we have amassed nearly 20 years of experience and content - in large part thanks to Dr. Helveston's vision.

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