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School of Optometry Celebrates 75th Anniversary

by Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
posted August 19, 1998

Optometrists began the 20th century as jewelers who made frames for glasses or as lens crafters who fashioned microscopes and surveying instruments. They are ending the century as the nation's primary eye-care doctors, able not only to diagnose disease but to treat it as well.

A century of work in vision science has transformed the field from a trade into a health profession, and no institution has been more central in providing that research base than Berkeley, where the School of Optometry celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.

Berkeley researchers did much of the pioneering work on binocular vision, color vision, focusing and alignment, the development of vision in infants, the growth of the eyes in children, the loss of vision in aging and respiration of the cornea -- the only organ other than the lung that can breathe on its own.

A Berkeley graduate produced the first patented hard plastic contact lens for the cornea. A Berkeley professor created the first non-invasive method for detecting high pressure in the eye, making screening for glaucoma a common component of any eye test.

Since it was formally established in 1941, Berkeley's School of Optometry has ranked at the top of its field nationally.

But the path has not been easy.

"It was a bootstrap operation for many years. We had to fight the prejudice of the medical profession," said Meredith Morgan, 86, a former dean of the school and professor emeritus of optometry and honorary chair of this year's anniversary celebrations.

Established in 1923 as a division of the physics department, the fledgling optometry program was housed at first in the basement and attic of the physics building. With no money for facilities or equipment, no fellowships for graduate study and no research equipment, Berkeley's first vision scientists relied on sealing wax and string.

Despite hardships of space and status, the optometry program was a scientist's paradise, providing a license to try out new "provocative" ideas that are the seeds of invention, said Elwin Marg, professor emeritus of optometry and an early graduate of the school. Marg was also, in 1950, the first student to earn a PhD in physiological optics (vision science) at Berkeley.

Still, optometry was not considered a full profession by the federal government, or the armed services. At the start of World War II, optometrists could not serve as health professionals. They could not dilate the pupil and look inside the eye. They could not prescribe medicines. As the post-war era began, however, all of that changed.

One of the first to breach the wall between optometry and medicine was Marg.

In 1959, he announced the invention of a new electronic instrument the size and shape of a very fat pen that could measure intraocular pressure without the need to use anesthesia on the eye. In other words, without any drug or injection, optometrists could gently touch the cornea with the tip of the pen and in a second determine if pressure inside the eye had built to dangerous levels.

Immediately, optometrists could evaluate patients for glaucoma at a stage early enough to prevent or limit blindness -- an important event in the transformation of optometrists into health professionals.

Meanwhile, physiological optics, as the field was known in university settings, was about to plunge into biology with new work on eye-brain connections.

From animal research and studies on infants, Berkeley scientists, including Meredith Morgan, began piecing together the story of binocular vision. They discovered that small difficulties in the alignment of an infant's eyes, a "wandering eye," could lead to permanent losses in neural connections to the visual cortex, so that stereoscopic vision would never develop properly.

However, correcting these small deviations at an early age could save stereoscopic vision.

These findings revealed the urgency of screening the vision of very young children on a routine basis. Beginning in the 1970s, such screening has been carried out by the School of Optometry clinic, which has tested up to half a million children in the Bay Area since 1972. The testing continues each year.

In the same period, immediately after World War II, the first corneal contact lenses were crafted in the workshop of a Berkeley graduate by the name of Solon M. "Bud" Braff. It was a hard plastic thing that fit over the cornea and barely allowed the eye to breathe, but it was a breakthrough.

"People would complain that their eyes were hot and their vision was steaming up," said Anthony Adams, current dean of the School of Optometry. "Those first contacts were incredibly uncomfortable, but people endured them for whatever reasons -- vanity, I guess. And they did so for many years while we tried to improve them."

And improve them they did. Berkeley optometrists set to work to discover how much oxygen the cornea needed and how they could get that through the lens. Four decades of work led to gas permeable contacts that solve most of the cornea's respiration problems, but now raise other issues having to do with tear flow and bacterial infection in extended-wear lenses.

Berkeley's optometrists are now working to find a way to maintain tear flow under lenses that sit on the eyeball for as long as a month.

Today, optometrists are required by law to diagnose and treat all kinds of diseases -- glaucoma, diabetic-related retinopathy and macular degeneration. They detect cataracts and manage patients after surgery. They provide pharmacological therapy in all 50 states.

Moreover, with an historic agreement reached between Berkeley and UC San Francisco last year, optometrists from this school and ophthalmologists from the medical school teach in each other's programs and see each other's patients, breaking down the last vestiges of the old wall between the two fields.

"We have now become health practitioners," said Morgan, whose father helped set up Berkeley's program in 1923. "We are the entry point into vision care. The boundaries are falling, and it's a good thing."

In addition to a gala celebration held last June, the school will mark its 75th anniversary with two scientific conventions in the fall. In November, contact lens scientists and practitioners from around the world will meet on campus to assess new developments. In December, the school will host an international symposium on vision science, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Academy of Optometry in San Francisco.

For further information, contact the dean's office at the School of Optometry at (510) 642-3414.

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