Dr. Arnall Patz, director emeritus at the Wilmer Eye Institute, dies at 89

His award-winning research discovered and eliminated a major cause of blindness in children

March 15, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

Dr. Arnall Patz, a Johns Hopkins physician who discovered and eliminated a major cause of blindness in children, died Thursday of heart disease at his Pikesville home. He was 89.

The director emeritus of the Wilmer Eye Institute, he was considered a pivotal figure in the history of ophthalmology. His work won him a Presidential Medal of Freedom and an Albert Lasker Award for his research into the causes and prevention of blindness. He was presented awards by President George W. Bush and Helen Keller.

News stories said that, as a young doctor training in Washington after World War II, Dr. Patz observed that a new incubator, sealed all around to contain an inner climate, was enabling doctors to save premature babies

"But something was wrong," said a 2004 Baltimore Sun profile. Patz noticed that the advance coincided with an epidemic of infant blindness, and that most of the victims were "preemies" who lay for weeks in an atmosphere of near-total oxygen.

In a question that outraged physicians at the time but later won their admiration, Dr. Patz wondered whether there might be a connection: Was it possible that oxygen was robbing babies of their sight?

"It had become standard practice to put babies in incubators and crank up the oxygen," Dr. Patz said in the Sun interview. He said that he could hardly blame the doctors who did this because it turned struggling babies from blue to pink.

His research disclosed that the excess oxygen given premature babies caused a disease called retrolental fibroplasia, then the major cause of blindness in children.

Dr. Patz sought funding for what became one of the first clinical trials not just in ophthalmology but in all of medicine. His idea was to follow "preemies" given high oxygen and others experimentally given lower doses. When one funding agency considered his proposal unscientific and possibly dangerous, he conducted his own trial.

Seven of 29 babies maintained on high oxygen developed advanced eye disease, while none of 37 babies on low oxygen did.

It was discovered that oxygen caused blood vessels in the back of the eye to constrict. In a doomed attempt to compensate, the eye sprouted twisted vessels that would eventually bleed and destroy the retina.

In 1956, he shared the Lasker Medical Research Award with V. Everett Kinsey, a biochemist who organized a larger study that confirmed his findings. Handing them their trophies was Keller, the renowned deaf and blind woman who became one of his inspirations.

"Helen Keller's eyes were so sparkly," he said in the 2004 Sun interview.

He collaborated with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory on one of the first argon lasers used in the treatment of diabetic eye disease and other retinal disorders.

"He was an exceptional colleague and friend, whom I consider to be one of the greatest ophthalmologists and greatest human beings in modern medicine," said Dr. Morton F. Goldberg, who succeeded him at Wilmer. "It was his passion, as well as his brilliance, that made him a great researcher and clinician, and most importantly, a mentor to all of us who learned and worked with him."

The son of shopkeepers in rural Elberton, Ga., Dr. Patz earned his medical degree at Emory University, served at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and trained at D.C. General Hospital.

Dr. Patz moved to Baltimore in 1950, where he married Ellen Levy, the daughter of straw hat manufacturer Lester Levy. He established a private practice on Eutaw Place in an office once used by Dr. Jonas Friedenwald.

Dr. Patz maintained a private ophthalmology practice while serving as a part-time faculty member at Hopkins for 15 years before the Seeing Eye Foundation awarded him a research professorship at Wilmer in 1970, when he joined the faculty full-time as founder of Johns Hopkins' Retinal Vascular Center.

He and his wife raised five children in their Pikesville home that often crawled with friends and students, some of whom would stay for weeks - or years, said his daughter, Susan Patz, who lives in Baltimore. The family vacationed in Maine, where he was an accomplished fisherman.

In the evening, Dr. Patz and his nephew, Samuel Patz of Baltimore, a child he raised, would switch on a ham radio and communicate with Eye Bank volunteers around the country, trying to round up donated corneas.

A son, Dr. Jonathan Patz of Madison, Wis., said his father was a model of ethics. "He always told me, 'If you can remember anything, be impeccably honest in all your dealings,' " he said.

"Dr. Patz's influence in ophthalmology as a clinician, researcher and mentor will be powerful and long-lasting," said Dr. Edward D. Miller, dean of the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine. "He graced the school and hospital for more than half a century, and we are enormously proud to have his extraordinary contributions as part of our history."

When he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, Dr. Patz was praised by President Bush as "the man who has given to uncounted men, women and children the gift of sight."

"For more than a half-century, his name has been the gold standard in the field of researching the causes and treatment of eye disease," Dr. Patz's citation read.

"He was modest about everything he accomplished," said Mrs. Patz, his wife of 60 years. "When he received the call, he didn't think it was the White House."

He also earned a master of liberal arts degree from the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences when he was 78.

Services were held Sunday.

In addition to his wife, daughter, son and nephew, survivors include two other sons, William Patz of Seattle and Dr. David Patz of Grand Junction, Colo.; and eight grandchildren.

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