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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University July 6, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 39
Wilmer's Arnall Patz Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

By John Lazarou
Johns Hopkins Medicine

Arnall Patz, director emeritus of the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute and winner of a Lasker Award for his discovery of a treatment for a disease that once was the most common cause of childhood blindness, was one of 12 recipients given this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush during a special ceremony held June 23 at the White House.

Patz was honored for his lifetime contributions to ophthalmology, which include development of one of the first argon lasers used in the treatment of diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration, and the elimination of a leading cause of blindness in premature babies.

"We are enormously proud to have the extraordinary contributions of one of our own so magnificently recognized," said Edward D. Miller, dean of faculty of the School of Medicine and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Patz's influence in ophthalmology as a clinician, researcher and mentor is powerful and long-lasting. He has graced the school and hospital for almost 50 years, and we are so pleased for him."

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor. First established by President Truman in 1945 to recognize civilians for their service during World War II, it was reinstated by President Kennedy in 1963 to honor individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States or to world peace or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

"I am delighted to receive this medal," Patz said. "And I am extremely pleased that this award will bring focus and attention to the value and importance of work in preserving the sight of patients and to ophthalmology's important role in medicine."

Early in his medical career, Patz was credited with discovering the cause of and treatment for retrolental fibroplasia, an abnormal overgrowth of blood vessels in the eye causing irreparable damage to the retina in premature infants. Known today as retinopathy of prematurity in newborns, during the 1950s this condition was the most common cause of childhood blindness. The condition was caused by giving high levels of oxygen to oxygen-needy premature infants.

Despite fierce resistance from the medical establishment, Patz scientifically proved the link between exposure to high levels of oxygen and blindness and effectively ended the problem by suggesting ways to shield the infants' eyes during oxygen therapy. The vision of countless infants was saved. For his work, he was awarded in 1956 the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award, sometimes dubbed the "American Nobel." The Lasker Award recognizes scientists, physicians and public servants whose accomplishments have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, prevention and cure of many of the great cripplers and killers of our century.

"Dr. Patz will always be considered, by his peers and those throughout our profession, as a man who contributed so critically to preserving sight," said Peter J. McDonnell, current director of the Wilmer Eye Institute. "As a member of the faculty of Wilmer for the last 50 years, his inspiration and leadership to fellow professionals, along with his guidance and encouragement to all of our medical students, make us fortunate to know him."

Following his work on ROP, Patz studied ways to stop the leaking and overgrowth of blood vessels in the retina, a condition associated with many diseases of the eye. Recognizing the potential of lasers to seal the leaking and stop the overgrowth of these blood vessels, Patz developed the argon laser with the help of colleagues at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory. Their work paved the way for treatment of many degenerative eye conditions, including diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration and retinal tearing.

Patz joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1970 and founded its Retinal Vascular Center. From 1979 to 1989, he served as the fourth director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, continuing to build its reputation as the world's foremost eye care and research center.

Morton F. Goldberg, who followed Patz as director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, said he feels this award exemplifies Patz's work and contributions to the field of ophthalmology. "He is an exceptional colleague and friend who I consider one of the greatest ophthalmologists and greatest human beings in modern medicine," Goldberg said. "It was his passion that made him a great researcher, clinician and most importantly a mentor to all of us who learned and worked with him."

In 1994, Patz was awarded the first Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research and has received many other distinguished ophthalmology awards, including the Friedenwald Research Award in 1980, the inaugural Isaac C. Michaelson Medal in 1986 and the 2001 Pisart International Vision Award from the Lighthouse International.

Patz, a native of Elberton, Ga., graduated from the Emory University School of Medicine in 1945. At age 78, he earned a master of liberal arts degree from Johns Hopkins. In 2001, in recognition of his contributions to scientific endeavor and to the Johns Hopkins community, the university conferred upon him an honorary doctorate.

Other Johns Hopkins faculty who have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom are pediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig (1964) and public health expert D.A. Henderson (2002).


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