Dr. Schepens, 'father of modern retinal surgery,' dies

May 1, 2006

The late Charles L. Schepens, MD, was well-known byophthalmologists worldwide as the father of modern retinal surgeryafter having discovered a way to re-attach retinas and restorevision to nearly 90% of patients, and having invented the binocularindirect ophthalmoscope.

The late Charles L. Schepens, MD, was well-known by ophthalmologists worldwide as the father of modern retinal surgery after having discovered a way to re-attach retinas and restore vision to nearly 90% of patients, and having invented the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope.

But his alter ego-Jacques Perot, a French lumber mill operator-gained equal notoriety and accolades in recent years as a leader in the Nazi resistance, responsible for smuggling more than 100 people from France into Spain to escape the war. Despite the heroism of Perot-the identity Dr. Schepens assumed when he and his family lived in the French village of Mendive-few outside of Dr. Schepens' family knew of his existence.

Dr. Schepens died March 28. He was 94.

Man with a vision

Dr. Schepens was born in Mouscron, Belgium, the son of a general practitioner. He was in postdoctoral training and a captain in the Belgian Air Force medical corps at the start of World War II. After twice being arrested by the Gestapo for helping to smuggle documents and maps out of Belgium, he fled with his family to France and assumed the name Jacques Perot. Beneath the cover of the working lumber mill, he helped workers escape over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain until the Gestapo learned of the mill's real purpose. Dr. Schepens fled to London, where he was joined 9 months later by his wife and children.

It was in London, in 1945, that he developed the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope, a stereoscopic viewing system and light source that allowed him to examine the entire retina, including the periphery, in three dimensions. According to the Smithsonian Institution, which has a prototype in its collection, he built the instrument with bits of metal he gathered on the streets of London during the German blitz.

Dr. Schepens immigrated to the United States in 1947 to pursue eye research at the Howe Laboratory of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, and he formed the retina service-the first of its kind-at the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary 2 years later.

In 1950, he founded the Retina Foundation, which focused on re-attaching detached retinas and related conditions. The Retina Foundation evolved into the Schepens Eye Research Institute-which became the largest independent eye research facility in the nation-and the Schepens Retina Associates Foundation, which is dedicated to clinical eye research, teaching, and patient care.

"When he came to this country nobody wanted to touch the retina because the prognosis of getting vision back wasn't very good; it was 40%. Nowadays it's more like 90%," recalled Tatsuo Hirose, MD, who came from Japan in 1969 to study with Dr. Schepens.

"He was Mr. Retina in the world at that time. People came from all over the world and I was one of them. I wanted to learn the retinal detachment (surgery)," said Dr. Hirose, clinical professor in ophthalmology, Harvard Medical School. "He was more than a retina surgeon. He was an educator and scientist and he had a very good mind for the important theories in taking care of the patient."