NEI's first director dies

April 20, 2011

Carl Kupfer, MD, who directed the National Eye Institute (NEI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for 30 years, died April 7 after a long illness.

Bethesda, MD-Carl Kupfer, MD, who directed the National Eye Institute (NEI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for 30 years, died April 7 after a long illness. He was 83.

Dr. Kupfer was appointed the first director of the NEI in 1970 after Congress established the institute. During his tenure, the institute’s budget grew from $24 million to more than $450 million.

He stepped down from the position in 2000 but remained active in vision research by compiling the Cogan Collection, a series of clinical cases and pathology reports of more than 50,000 patients. Dr. Kupfer also authored History of the National Eye Institute, 1968-2000, which chronicled the inception of the institute and its growth during his tenure.

Under his leadership, the NEI research program was expanded to include areas such as molecular biology, immunology, neuroscience, and molecular genetics. Dr. Kupfer also supported the visual processing program within the NEI intramural program, which has become a “crown jewel of visual neuroscience,” according to the institute.

Basic research also thrived under Dr. Kupfer, according to the NEI. Investigators identified genes associated with juvenile primary open-angle glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), retinitis pigmentosa, and retinoblastoma. They also developed medical lasers to treat diabetic retinopathy, AMD, and nearsightedness, as well as safe and effective techniques to photograph the eye. During his tenure, the NEI research portfolio grew to include more than 1,600 investigators at universities, medical centers, and research institutions around the United States.

Dr. Kupfer also oversaw the development of the National Eye Health Education Program, a partnership of professional, civic, and volunteer organizations, as well as government agencies formed to educate the public and professionals about eye health.