One morning in October 1931, the twelve-year-old John Wilson’s life was to change forever. In a chemistry lesson at the Scarborough High School for Boys, he and his classmates had to carry out an experiment.
“I was sitting on a high stool, playing the blue flame from the Bunsen burner onto the test-tube when it suddenly exploded,” he said. “The chemicals had been wrongly labelled and it produced an explosive mixture.”
Whole rows of bottles were shattered, covering the pupils with glass. A boy was blinded in one of his eyes, John Wilson blinded in both. He always maintained that he did not think the event was tragic. He said it was catastrophic for his parents, and a lot of time was spent soothing their anxieties. He was far more accepting, and constantly referred to his blindness as nothing more than a “confounded nuisance.”
Sir John enrolled at Oxford University in 1937, and had to quickly adapt to a huge, bustling town. He had not used a white cane before and nor would he for years to come, but instead relied on a sharp sense of hearing and what he called his ‘obstacle sense’.
He was one of 18 students to obtain a Second Class degree in Law.
At the age of 22, Sir John got his first job, as Assistant Secretary at the National Institute for the Blind. He found wartime London exciting – provided you weren’t being hit by the bombs! In the ensuing years he moved up the ranks until he was a player on the international stage. It was during these years that he married his wife Jean.