CHARLES L. SCHEPENS, MD
The Creator of the Retina Specialty
His Life & Times 1912-2006
“I am a human being who has received
a tremendous amount on this earth, so
I feel I have a tremendous debt that I
can never pay back enough.”
CHARLES L. SCHEPENS
EDUCATOR, INNOVATOR, SCIENTIST, LEADER, MENTOR
MAN OF PASSION AND COMPASSION
–Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology Emeritus, Harvard Medical
—Founder and First President, Schepens Eye Research Institute,
Charles Schepens accomplished much in his lifetime. Personally, professionally and in service to others, his list of achievements is formidable. He also possessed the rare qualities of being both exacting in his work, and, through his devotion to his work and his students also to cultivate a loyal and equally devoted body of friends and colleagues around the world.
He was a man of many dimensions who gave deeply of himself throughout his lifetime, so that he could provide opportunities to others, in return, he said, for the many opportunities that he was given by others in life.
Thousands of us have benefited from his leadership in the field of ophthalmology and his focus on the retina. Many thousand more have had their lives changed through the treatments and tools he developed.
Charles L. Schepens: The Early Years
A MAN OF PURPOSE
Born in Mouscron, Belgium in 1912, Dr. Schepens grew up during the days of the German Bombing and occupation of neighboring Ypres. He attended medical school in Belgium and was trained in mathematics and pharmacology. Soon after, he served as a captain in the Belgian Air Force Medical Corps and later in the French and Belgian Resistance during World War II. He was captured twice by the German Gestapo, but survived and eventually emigrated to the United States.
Schepens Family Photo circa 1917
Class photo of Jesuit boarding school Dr. Schepens attended after the loss of his parents where he said he spent the best times of his youth.
“‘You must give back to society.’ This was the principle tenet by which my grandfather approached his life, and the one rule he laid before us in every conversation we had about careers and life decisions:’’—Marc Schepens, grandson of Charles Schepens.
The 2004 book “The Surgeon and the Shepherd,” by Meg Ostrum, describes his time spent with the resistance movement. He spent nearly two years operating a working sawmill while covertly working to assist more than 100 Allied pilots, prisoners of war, Belgian government officials and others to escape the Nazis into Spain Dr. Schepens was consumed by his passion for helping others during these years, and the ensuing events influenced him greatly throughout the rest of his life.
He eventually fled through Spain, when Nazi officers tried to arrest him in 1943, and settled in London. At the same time, his wife and children, who were under house arrest by the Nazis, made their own escape, hiking through the mountains to Spain and eventually joining him in England.
The family’s arrival in Boston in 1945
Dr. Schepens and his wife, Marie, were married for over 69 years and had 4 children.
Around 1920, Dr. Jules Gonin (1870-1935) discovered the cause and cure for retinal detachment.
“In 1945, Dr. Charles Schepens; unique contribution to ophthalmology began with the conception and building of the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope which markedly enhanced the view within the eye. This and the new surgical techniques used with it revolutionized surgery for detached retinas, raising the success rate from 40 % to 90%.
—J. Wallace McMeel, MD
Dr. Schepens Holding an Indirect Ophthalmoscope
After arriving in England, Dr. Schepen accepted a post as research scholar at Moorfield Eye Hospital in London. It was there that he built the first binocular indirect ophthalmoscope in 1945, which for the first time allowed surgeons a hands-free stereoscopic view of the retina. The prototype of his design was crafted from scrap metal, glass and other bits of hardware that he scavenged from the rubble at Moorfield following the German blitz.
This method of examining the fundus was to revolutionize retinal surgery and, it was said at the time that this single invention advanced the field of ophthalmoscopy more than had been achieved in the prior fifty years. An early model of his design is on permanent display at the Smithsonian institution in Washington, DC.
As a teacher of teachers, Dr. Schepens eventually taught indirect ophthalmoscopy and modern retinal surgery to ophthalmologists across the world. Indeed, in many countries, the indirect ophthalmoscope is referred to by Many as “The Schepens Scope.”
He and his team of scientists continued to develop new techniques and procedures, including vitreous microscissors, the laser Doppler Flowmeter and silicone scleral buckling. Schepens also pioneered the open-sky vitrectomy for repairing the retina in cases of Retinopathy of Prematurity.
Through a medical career spanning 70 years, Dr. Schepens created numerous surgical innovations which have saved and will continue to save the sight of millions of adults and children suffering from retinal disorders. His medical and scientific legacy will continue through the work of the Schepens Eye Research Institute and his many students throughout the world.
‘His work, devotion and tremendous energy spent in training so many doctors has made a marked difference in the prognosis of retinal detachment in his country and around the world.”
–Felix Sabates, MD, FACS
Because little research money was available in war-ravaged Europe, he left London and emigrated to the United States in 1947, joining the Howe Laboratory of Ophthalmology, Harvard Medical School, as a fellow in ophthalmic research. Three years later, he founded the Retina Foundation and the first retina service in the world at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary , where he served as director. He also served as a clinical professor of ophthalmology at Harvard until 1978 when he earned the title of Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology, Emeritus.
Now known as the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston, it is the world’s largest independent eye research institute and is an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. Beginning with one researcher who collaborated with Dr. Schepens in the study of the vitreous, many early discoveries ensued. The use of viscoelastic material in ophthalmic surgery has its origins in this early pioneering work at the Institute.
Dr. Schepens founded the Schepens Retina Associates, the first subspecialty group dedicated to caring for retina patients and training retina specialists. He was an independent and innovative man who saw needs in the world and stepped forward in every circumstance to meet those needs. Prior to his passing at age 94, Dr. Schepens was still working at the Foundation that bears his name. He was seeing patients, assisting in fund-raising and overseeing research.
A detailed knowledge of the retina was essential. He trained all of his students to make these detailed drawings of the patient’s retina to obtain a complete understanding of the disease as well as plan for therapy.
(Above) The first location of the Schepens Eye Research Institute was in one floor of an old tenement house. (below) The current location in Boston, MA
‘IF I HAVE SEEN A LITTLE FURTHER IT IS BY STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS” – ISAAC NEWTON (1676)
Dr. Schepens whole approach centers on the synergy that comes from contributing education, research and clinical practice in one institution. Since its development, the organization has trained today’s leaders in ophthalmologic research and medicine. This includes more than 400 postdoctoral fellows in various disciplines of eye research and more than 500 eye surgeons who now practice around the world.
“I am most satisfied that this type of work is not dying with me, thanks to the training program and the people who continue the tradition. I think it is wonderful to be proud of people who are younger than you and who will survive you and know you had something to do with the fact that they are so successful and the knowledge has been passed on”
–Charles Schepens, MD
“Innovator, clinician-scientist and teacher, Charles Schepens led an epochal advance in the knowledge and treatment of retinal disease worldwide.”
—Bradley R. Straatsma, MD
Founding Director, Jules Stein Eye Institute
LEADER & MENTOR
In addition to developing the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope, Dr. Schepens and his associates designed many other ophthalmic instruments including the small-pupil ophthalmoscope, the scanning laser ophthalmoscope and the laser photocoagulator.
He has also published over 390 scientific papers, and four books on retinal diseases.
Biomedical engineer and physicist Oleg Pomerantzeff was a close friend and co-worker of Dr. Schepens, whom he referred to as “the 20th century ’s greatest physicist in ophthalmic optics.”
. 1949 FOUNDED THE RETINA SERVICE,
MASSACHUSEETTS EYE AND EAR INFIRMARY
- FOUNDED THE SCHEPENS EYE RESEARCH INSTITUTE
. 1967 FOUNDER THE RETINA SOCIETY
. 1978 CLINICAL PROFESSOR OF OPHTHALMOLOGY,
. 2001 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
ESTABLISHED THE CHARLES L SCHEPENS
. 2003 LAUREATE, AMERICAN ACADEMY OF
. 2006 KNGHT OF THE FRENCH LEGION OF HONOR
–THE MOST PRESTIGIOUS AWARD GIVEN BY THE FRENCH
GOVERNMENT, IN RECOGNITION BOTH OF HIS LIFELONG
CONTRIBUTION TO ADVANCEMENTS IN OPHTHALMOLOGY AND
HIS PATRIOTIC SERVICE TO THE RESISTANCE IN WORLD WAR II
“Dr. Schepens lived by his motto and was an example for all of us. ‘Never stop dreaming. What seemed impossible yesterday can be reality tomorrow.’ We shall remember this giant of ophthalmology with the love and respect he deserves. His life stands as a testament to the power of human ingenuity, compassion and dedication.’
–Alice McPherson, MD
“He was constantly emphasizing research to improve clinical outcomes, then educating people who would bring advances in treatment to a wider population. Having been exposed to him, fellows and investigators absorbed his dedication to research, education and patient care –and carried that message around the world.”
Dr Schepens taught with a rigorous method, defining problems and solving them with meticulous care He set equally high standards for his students, as well.
When looking at the spirit of determination he exhibited in his early years and in his activities during the war. it is easy to recognize that same tenacity and concern for others being focused on solutions for vitreo-retinal diseases.
His was an exceptional humanity, demonstrated through his continuing support of his graduates, providing insightful advice when many less committed might waver. Charles Schepens has left an enormous footprint that will be forever remembered.”
MAN OF PASSION AND COMPASSION
‘I believe in God profoundly. I am a human being who has received a great deal on this earth. with wonderful parents, brothers, sisters, a devoted wife and children. I was brought up in optimum circumstances with good schools and a brain that worked. So I feel I have a tremendous debt to pay back by finding solutions to unsolved problems and helping create happiness for t hose less fortunate.”
Charles Schepens, MD
While so much of his life was focused on larger issues, he still retained an amazing compassion for individuals. Many letters from patients attest to his personal concern and warmth for their problems, both ophthalmic and otherwise. His students, and former fellows almost universally have remembrances of unsolicited kindnesses from their mentor. He often said that among his happiest moments were those spent when surrounded by his fellows.
No one worked so hard for so long in developing so much in the field of retinal research and treatment. He was so passionate in his desire to help others, his goal was to train people around the world, so they would go out into the world and train others.
Just a few weeks after receiving the French Legion of Honor award, Professor Charles L, Schepens died Tuesday, March 28, 2006 at the age of 94. He was survived by this wife of 69 years, Marie G (Vander-Eecken) who died June 9, 2008.
“Life is a chain. Our bodies fail and eventually have to rest for a very long time, but our beings and our work live on through our family, colleagues and friends.
—Charles L Schepens, MD
IT IS PERHAPS APPROPRIATE THAT ONE WHO HAS BEEN BLESSED WITH SUCH A NOBLE VISION HAS BEEN – AND WILL CONTINUE TO BE – INSTRUMENTAL IN PRESERVING VISION FOR MILLIONS OF PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD.
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