The Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 24, 2000
April 24, 2000
VOL. 29, NO. 33


Wilmer Celebrates 75 Years

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

A native of New England, Morton Goldberg had a difficult time in the summer of 1963 adjusting to his new life below the Mason-Dixon Line. He readily recalls the stifling 100-degree temperature--with a relative humidity of 99--the day he arrived in Baltimore to begin his residency at the Wilmer Eye Institute.

In those days, the life of an on-call physician, he says, came without the benefit of air conditioning. The only relief was the Hopkins dome itself, a structure intentionally built to let the hot air rise out of the patients' rooms and escape outside. Unfortunately for Goldberg and his fellow residents, this same hot air rose through their top-floor bedrooms every night.

"The only air-conditioned room in the entire Wilmer Institute was an operating room that had a window unit. And I would sometimes strap myself to the operating table to sleep at night when I was on-call--I couldn't sleep anywhere else, it was so hot," says Goldberg, who today is professor and director of ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute and the School of Medicine. "It was extraordinarily difficult. I remember saying, 'I can't survive in Baltimore, Md.' "

William Holland Wilmer, inaugural director

Yet, as the summer passed, Goldberg says he began to realize why his ophthalmology professor at Harvard was so adamant about his coming to Wilmer for his residency, as opposed to staying in Boston: He was able to witness on a daily basis "great mentors and colleagues pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge and clinical care."

"By Labor Day," Goldberg says, "I realized this was one of the most exciting places in the entire world."

Still pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge and clinical care, Wilmer's faculty and staff, joined by hundreds of colleagues and friends, will celebrate the venerable institution's 75th anniversary on April 28 and 29. The two-day event includes an international scientific conference and a black-tie gala. Scientific conference presentations will be held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day in the auditorium of the Thomas B. Turner Building at the School of Medicine in East Baltimore.

The gala, to be held at 7 p.m. on April 29 at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel in the Inner Harbor, will be hosted by former ABC News 20/20 anchorman Hugh Downs and also will feature, as guest speaker, astronaut and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn. Both Downs and Glenn are former patients and members of the Wilmer Advisory Council. Goldberg says that, in addition to live entertainment, the gala will include the announcement of recent major philanthropic gifts to Wilmer. More than 800 guests are expected, some coming from as far away as Australia and Japan, to honor a remarkable history.

The 75-year-old institute is named for William Holland Wilmer, a decorated World War I veteran, who was born in Powhatan County, Va., in 1863. Wilmer began to practice ophthalmology in 1889 and over the next 35 years became one of the most renowned practitioners in his field. He set up his practice in Washington, D.C., and for varying periods of time he also served as professor of ophthalmology at the medical school of Georgetown University, where he built his reputation as a preeminent educator.

In 1924, friends and former patients of Wilmer sought to honor his skills and years of public service by organizing the Wilmer Foundation to raise funds to allow the revered physician to carry on his own research work and to train young doctors. An endowment of nearly $4 million was raised, and one year later, the foundation--in response to overtures by Hopkins' William H. Welch--established the Wilmer Institute of Ophthalmology at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The institute was the nation's first university eye clinic to combine patient care, research and teaching under one roof, and Wilmer was chosen, at age 61, to become its inaugural director. He remained in that position until his retirement in 1934.

While awaiting permanent quarters, the institute was initially housed in the former Department of Gynecology building. The facility in 1925 had 73 beds, five full-time faculty members and an annual operating budget of $83,500.

In 1929 the institute moved to its present site, since renovated, and over the next 70 years has enhanced its standing and reputation as one of the foremost eye institutes in the world. Wilmer faculty have been pioneers in their field, credited with a mass of breakthroughs over the years. Among the highlights on the timeline:

1947--Wilmer physicians establish the field of neuro-ophthalmology as a specialty.

1956--Wilmer scientists find that excess oxygen in incubators causes retinal damage in many premature infants.

1979--The institute opens the Dana Center, the first and only center of its kind in the United States for preventive ophthalmology.

1983--Wilmer researchers find that two-cent vitamin A capsules given to children in developing countries to prevent blindness also cut death rates in these children by 30 percent--a finding that could save up to 200 million lives worldwide.

1989--Cornea surgeons use excimer laser energy to erase scars on the cornea, thereby delaying and, in some cases, eliminating the need for a transplant.

1994--Experts from Wilmer's Lions Low Vision Center and NASA introduce the Low Vision Enhancement System to the public. The device, pronounced "Elvis," is a battery-powered high-tech visual aid worn like goggles; it enhances contrast and enlarges and brightens images.

1998--Wilmer surgeons develop macular translocation, a technique to save sight in some patients with age-related macular degeneration. To date, more than 350 of the operations have been performed at Wilmer.

1998--Wilmer scientists report that exposure to sunlight increases the risk of getting cataracts. They recommend wearing sunglasses, even inexpensive ones, to protect the eyes from the sun's ultraviolet B rays.

Goldberg says Wilmer continues to be on the cusp of advances, including the development of noninvasive high-tech machines to measure and record images inside the eye, without ever touching the eye, and laser technology, such as that used to treat near- and far-sightedness and also macular degeneration.

He predicts the next century will witness transplantation of the human retina to treat blindness, the development of gene therapy for common eye diseases, an implantable photo microchip to restore eyesight to some totally blind people and drug therapy to control abnormal blood vessel growth that can lead to vision loss. Total eye transplant for the blind, Goldberg says, is currently outside our bounds to achieve. However, 10 years ago, he said the same of some of the major clinical technologies we have today, so he remains optimistic.

"Given enough time and money, some of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles will be overcome at some time in the future," Goldberg says.

Wilmer has been ranked No. 1 in ophthalmology in U.S. News & World Report's annual "Best Hospitals" issue for eight of the past 10 years. Ophthalmology Times has given the institute the same distinction for the past four years.

Goldberg says the key to Wilmer's success through the years is not resting on its laurels but adhering to "the tradition of always having to do better."

"The goal has always been to achieve some ephemeral but elevated state of pure excellence. Of course, we never quite get there, but we approach it," Goldberg says. "Every generation tries to do better than the one before. And those of us who are now active expect that our students and colleagues in the future will do better than we have done to advance the frontiers of research, take better care of patients and do a better job teaching. It just keeps getting better and better, decade after decade."

Currently, the institute has 12 treatment sites spread throughout Maryland, an annual operating budget of $47.9 million and 118 full-time faculty.

"This anniversary occurs near the end of Wilmer's most productive year, in which we received more grant money for research than any other ophthalmology department in the world, performed more than 11,000 laser operations and saw more than 110,000 patients," Goldberg says.

Goldberg says an additional explanation for Wilmer's tradition of excellence has been the continuity of leadership.

"There have been only five directors in the institute's 75-year history. We have always had strong leadership and a great faculty," Goldberg says. "This is a place that high-caliber professionals devote their entire professional lives to. Everyone here is committed to this institution. We want it to be the best it can be."

One of the five Wilmer directors was Arnall Patz, currently a professor of ophthalmology at the School of Medicine. Patz preceded Goldberg, serving as director from 1979 to 1989, and among his many professional accomplishments was being the chief investigator for the development of the argon laser, an instrument that today is used to halt vision loss caused by diabetes and in some patients with age-related macular degeneration. He also was the first to document the role of oxygen in causing blindness in premature babies.

Patz says that under the "sterling leadership" of its current director, the institute's future appears brighter now that at any point since his first visit to Wilmer in 1949.

"Dr. Goldberg has steered the institute to great advances in virtually all aspects of the program, those being clinical, teaching and research," Patz says. "And he has achieved those goals with the assistance of an unusually creative and brilliant faculty, highly capable residents and a trained and very dedicated nursing and general staff."

Reflecting on the innovations that have occurred during his association with the celebrated clinic, Patz says it is difficult to highlight any one.

"I think that on every floor of the institute and in every major program of the institute there has been an exciting breakthrough over that period," Patz says. "Wilmer has been a resource for development in so many areas of scientific progress, and I predict it will continue its tradition and legacy of excellence. I think it all points back to the leadership of Dr. Wilmer. In just a few years, he built Wilmer into a world-renowned institute, with a repuation that has been maintained and strengthened through the years."