How Research to Prevent Blindess worked to advance ophthalmology

November 15, 2007

With its leadership and financial support, Research to Prevent Blindness has been a major player in moving ophthalmic research from obscurity in the 1960s to front-line prominence across the United States. Today, Research to Prevent Blindness is recognized as the leading voluntary health organization in the nation supporting eye research. It uses grants to encourage creative individual thought and translational research.

Key Points

As recently as the 1960s, ophthalmology was a second-tier medical specialty in the United States. Most medical schools relegated eye care to the division of surgery. With little research money available, few basic scientists focused their work on eyes.

"We didn't want it to be just a clinical specialty any more. We wanted to create environments where PhDs and MDs worked together and moved ophthalmology ahead," recalled David F. Weeks, the first paid employee that Research to Prevent Blindness hired. He has worked with the organization ever since, serving many years as executive director, and now as volunteer chairman of the board, contributing about 20 hours per week.

So, Research to Prevent Blindness organizers committed to finance only research in ophthalmology programs that were full departments; this led to a major movement to upgrade eye-care programs across the United States.

"We particularly encouraged the awarding of joint appointments to scientists, with a primary appointment in ophthalmology and a secondary one in basic science," Weeks said.

Aiming high

But the group wasn't finished reshaping the world of ophthalmology. After encouraging the formation of full-fledged academic departments, it next set its sights on the U.S. government. At the time, the few federal dollars that existed for eye research were being funneled through the National Institute for Neurological Diseases and Blindness. Dr. Stein and his colleagues wanted to convince the government to form an institute devoted to eye care, so they undertook two steps:

1. They commissioned a Gallup poll to ask Americans how important vision was to them. Not surprisingly to eye-care professionals, blindness rated second only to cancer as a national public health fear.

2. They recruited Thomas D. Duane, MD, who was chairman of the Division of Ophthalmology at Jefferson Medical College, to conduct a scientific survey of the nation's medical schools to learn if a new public foundation could serve a worthwhile purpose in the support of ophthalmic research. He met with representatives of more than 100 medical schools to learn about their aspirations and concerns. The information he gathered provided scientific authenticity for the need for a dedicated national eye program.

With positive results from both endeavors, Research to Prevent Blindness went to work spreading the message and lobbying Congress. Weeks ultimately authored legislation to found the National Eye Institute, and it was introduced into Congress by Rep. Fred Rooney of Pennsylvania in 1966. When the bill stalled in committee for lack of the support of a national scientific group, Research to Prevent Blindness helped stimulate the formation of the Association of University Professors of Ophthalmology (AUPO), a group that is still active in the field today.

After its formation, AUPO's first order of business was to endorse the concept of a national eye institute. With the help of this support, the institute officially came into being in August 1968.

Today, nearly 50 years after its founding, Research to Prevent Blindness continues its commitment to making breakthroughs in sight-threatening diseases. It played a major role in the formation of many of today's modern eye institutes, and supports research at more than 60 medical centers. It awards about $10 million a year to researchers and is credited as providing funding by more than 1,000 papers printed in peer-reviewed journals each year. It also is committed to supporting researchers at all levels of their careers, Weeks explained.