'Research to Prevent Blindness' Weeks retires after 50 years

December 15, 2011
Jennifer A. Webb

David F. Weeks was a quarter master in the U.S. Army, earned a business administration degree, and raised funds for philanthropic causes - all before Jules Stein, MD, hired him in 1961 to lead the newly formed Research to Prevent Blindness.

Key Points

New York-David F. Weeks was a quarter master in the U.S. Army, earned a business administration degree, and raised funds for philanthropic causes-all before Jules Stein, MD, hired him in 1961 to lead the newly formed Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB).

During his tenure, RPB's year-end net asset balance grew from $13,500 in 1960 to more than $250 million in 2010. Today, RPB gives unrestricted eye research grants of $100,000 to each of 56 medical schools and provides individual grant support at every stage of a scientist's career. The organization has given more than $300 million in grants to departments of ophthalmology during his tenure.

At the time, very little vision research was being done in the United States. In fact, only 15 basic scientists were working on ophthalmology in the mid-1960s, Weeks said.

"Now, there's several hundred-and more than 15 in any number of institutions," he said.

In most medical schools, the study of ophthalmology was grouped in a general "surgical" department. Dr. Stein and RPB's trustees hoped to stimulate more emphasis on vision research by giving money only to departments of ophthalmology. Initially, RPB gave grants of $5,000 to 11 schools, Weeks recalled. Other schools noticed this funding source, and soon developed departments of ophthalmology.

At the national level, eye research was lumped with neurological diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and received only about 17%-about $14 million-of the total money designated for that group, Weeks said. That spurred RPB to seek an independent body within the NIH for eye research.

The Johnson administration, however, disliked the idea of adding more institutes and tried to block the effort, he said. Working with a sympathetic congressman, Weeks drafted the bill to create the NEI, then lobbied legislators for support. Despite some interest, the effort stumbled when a number of medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and the predecessor to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, cited conflicts of interest and refused to endorse it, Weeks said.

Related Content:

News | Optometry