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Dispatches from ARVO Day 3: Making a Difference

May 9, 2012

by Jennifer Phillips, Ph.D.

"Something must be done beyond giving them a dog, a cane, or a Braille book. We must give those who need it the hope that science is actively probing the affliction robbing them of their sight."—Mildred Weisenfeld

Here at ARVO the last events of the day are the award lectures. Each year, several of the most impacting clinicians and scientists in the international Ophthalmology and vision research community are chosen to receive various awards and deliver a plenary lecture. One of the awards given last night was the Weisenfield award, named for Mildred Weisenfield. I’d never heard of her before, so I was delighted when both the introducer and the award recipient took some time to give the audience a little history about this remarkable woman.

Mildred was born in Brooklyn in 1921, and at age 15 was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. She was blind by age 23. Frustrated that no vision funding went into research for treatments for blindness, she founded the National Council to Combat Blindness. She established this organization on her own, with $8, and worked tirelessly to raise awareness of and funds for vision research. The National Council to Combat Blindness later became known as Fight for Sight. Mildred had no scientific training, but she nonetheless testified on eye research at the United States Congress in 1946, which led to the creation of a National Institute of Neurological Disease and Blindness and, shortly thereafter, The National Eye Institute. You can read a bit more about her here.

The recipient of this year’s Weisenfeld Award was John Forrester, an ophthalmologist from Aberdeen, Scotland. He gave a fascinating talk about the trajectory of his career as a clinician-scientist, and stressed the importance of translational research—the union of basic science and clinical applications—as integral to developing therapies for ocular diseases. Dr. Forrester has made absolutely amazing contributions to vision research as well as to the state of vision care in his native Scotland. Sitting with several thousand other attendees listening to his achievements, it was hard not to feel a little inadequate. I’m a contributor to the big picture, you know, but unless something really remarkable happens, I’m never going to be lauded as one of the great scientists of my generation. But then I remembered Mildred and her $8. It’s a valuable reminder that small contributions coupled with a passion for change can make a huge difference. She didn’t know how it was all going to turn out when she started the NCCB, but she took the plunge and did something she was passionate about. Just as Mark and other parents of Usher kids have come together to organize support and information for families worldwide. Just as I and many other scientists continue to work at discovering things that might lead to a treatment for Usher patients. If we all stay involved and committed, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.

Final ARVO 2012 report coming tomorrow.

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