Contributed by Claire Simons MD (cand)
Dr. Arnall Patz was born on June 14, 1920, in rural Elberton, Georgia, the youngest of seven siblings and the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. His endless curiosity and devotion to the field of ophthalmology made him a pivotal figure in the history of the specialty, most notably for his discovery of the cause of retinopathy of prematurity [1,2] as well as the development of the first argon lasers.
Dr. Patz received his bachelor’s and medical degrees from Emory University in Atlanta, graduating from medical school in 1945. Dr. Patz then joined the Army, and after being discharged with the rank of captain in 1948, he began his ophthalmology training at Gallinger Municipal Hospital, now known as the District of Columbia General Hospital.
During his residency, Dr. Patz observed several premature infants who became blind after receiving continuous oxygen therapy. This epidemic of blindness among premature infants was perplexing to doctors at the time, but Dr. Patz hypothesized that there was a link between the use of pure oxygen therapy and the high rate of blindness among premature babies.He proposed a clinical trial to test his hypothesis, however, found it difficult to obtain grant funding due to ethical concerns. He partnered with Dr. Leroy Hoeck, a pediatrician in charge of the newborn nursery at Gallinger, and secured funding from his brother, Louis Patz, to run the early tests of his theory. In this study conducted between 1950 and 1953, some infants were supplied with continuous concentrated oxygen, while other infants received oxygen only when they were in respiratory distress. The study results confirmed Dr. Patz’s suspicion with 12 of the infants on continuous oxygen went blind, while only one infant supplied with normal oxygen went blind. As a result of these findings, the use of high-dose oxygen therapy was limited, and the United States experienced a 60% reduction in childhood blindness.5 Dr. Patz, in recognition of his breakthrough discovery, was awarded the Albert Lasker Research Award in 1956, an award commonly known as “the American Nobel”.
Joining the medical faculty at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1955, Dr. Patz continued his pioneering work in ophthalmology. He collaborated with colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory to develop one of the first argon lasers to treat retinal disorders such as macular degeneration and diabetes-related retinal disease. Such lasers are now the standard treatment for these conditions.
Dr. Patz was a humble and modest man despite his incredible achievements, including being awarded the Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2004, who described him as “the man who has given to uncounted men, women, and children, the gift of sight.” He spent summers in Maine in a log cabin built for his family and was an avid fly fisherman. Dr. Patz passed on March 11, 2010, at his home in Pikesville, Maryland, and will be remembered for his pioneering discoveries and endless pursuit of knowledge.