Dr. Patz remembered

April 1, 2010

Arnall Patz, MD, may not have had instant name recognition among most Americans, but among ophthalmologists, he was a legend.

Baltimore, MD-Arnall Patz, MD, might not have had instant name recognition among most Americans, but among ophthalmologists, he was a legend.

The director emeritus of Johns Hopkins University's Wilmer Eye Institute and a longtime faculty member, Dr. Patz is being hailed as one of the specialty's greatest ophthalmologists, not only for his scientific advances but for the manner in which he trained younger ophthalmologists to become leaders in the field.

"I kept hoping we'd find out that he got the Nobel Prize," added Peter J. McDonnell, MD, Wilmer's current chairman. "I thought it would have been nice for someone [whose work] resulted in the closure of two-thirds of the schools for the blind. If that doesn't deserve a Nobel Prize, I can't think of too many things that do."

Born in Elberton, GA, Dr. Patz received his undergraduate and medical degrees from Emory University in Atlanta. After serving in World War II, he joined the eye clinic at Walter Reed Army Hospital, then began his residency in ophthalmology at the District of Columbia General Hospital.

Infant blindness

As a resident, he noticed an unusual number of premature infants had an abnormal overgrowth of blood vessels in the eye that caused irreparable damage to the retina and often led to blindness. Many of them had received near-total oxygen in their incubators, which was believed beneficial to preventing cyanosis. Along with the late Leroy Hoeck, MD, a pediatrician, he conducted what is believed to be one of the first controlled clinical trials in American ophthalmology and discovered that excessive exposure to oxygen caused retrolental fibroplasia (now referred to as retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP), which then was the major cause of blindness in children.

His idea was met with a high level of suspicion and disapproval from the medical community, which found it hard to believe that something as beneficial as oxygen could cause such harm. Despite initially denying his request, Dr. Patz eventually gained approval for his research funding, and his studies supported his theory. After a large-scale clinical trial led by Everett Kinsey, MD, confirmed his findings, oxygen was discontinued as the standard of care, saving the eyesight of countless infants.