RETINA PIONEER

Charles L. Schepens, MD

1912-2006

Contributed by Thierry C. Verstraeten, MD

Charles Schepens, born in Mouscron, Belgium in 1912, was destined for a career in medicine. His father was a physician in family practice, his 3 older brothers were physicians, and his 2 sisters became nurses. Dr. Schepens’ first passion was mathematics, influenced by Jesuit teachers in sciences at Notre Dame de la Paix in Namur, Belgium.  

He graduated from medical school at the University of Ghent in 1936 and married Marie-Germaine (“Cette”) Vander Eecken, who tirelessly supported his budding career. Dr. Schepens obtained his early ophthalmology training under Prof. Hembressin in Brussels, but that was interrupted in 1940 by World War II.  

His heroic actions during the war have been well chronicled; he escaped from the Gestapo once in Brussels in 1940, and then a second time in Mendive (French Pyrenees) in 1943 while he was operating a clandestine lumber mill, smuggling documents and Allied personnel.  

After the war, Dr. Schepens returned to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London and resumed his training, but he found little support to continue his work. In 1946, he embarked to the United States and settled in Boston after visiting and considering other options including Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and Hartford.

His largest contribution to our field is the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope, which greatly enhanced the discovery of peripheral retinal pathology so vital to perfect therapeutic solutions and improve outcomes. Dr. Schepens was always quick to credit others before him, including Helmholtz, Gonin, Amsler, and Arruga. He said that Dr. Weve from Utrecht, Holland, with whom he spent some time, was the best ophthalmoscopist he had seen using a monocular indirect ophthalmoscope.

Dr. Schepens was a prodigious fundraiser, as he understood that funding research at the Retina Foundation was key to fostering young researchers. He had high expectations of his colleagues and he always led by example. He trained 200 fellows, staying in touch with many of them for decades and answering letters by hand on Sunday afternoons, all while finishing the 2-volume edition of Retinal Detachment and Allied Diseases. He fondly remembered his first fellow, Dr. Grignolo from Genoa, Italy.  

A few days before his death at age 94, Dr. Schepens was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur medal for his exemplary actions in the Resistance during World War II and his lifetime contributions to ophthalmology.

Personal Reflection 

‘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 L. Schepens, MD


highlights

1945

Developed binocular indirect ophthalmoscope

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1947

Pioneered silicone rubber scleral buckling

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1947

Pioneered open-sky approach for retinopathy of prematurity

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1947

Assisted in the table design for upside-down surgery

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1949

Established first retina department and retina fellowship

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1950

Founded The Retina Foundation (now the Schepens Eye Research Institute)

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1967

Founded The Retina Society

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Academic Appointment

1949-2006

  • Clinical Professor, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Medical School
  • Founder, Retina Foundation at Harvard, now named The Schepens Eye Research Institute
  • Director, Retina Service, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary

Education & Training

Fellowship: Howe Laboratory of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School

Residency: Moorfields Eye Hospital, London

Medical School: State University of Ghent, Belgium


Military Service

Captain, Medical Corps, Belgian Air Force, followed by fighting with the French Resistance

Reflections

Thierry Verstraeten, MD

Dr. Schepens holding one of his many hand-made prototypes of the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope allowing stereoscopic fundus viewing.
Photo courtesy of Tatsuo Hirose, MD.

I had the privilege to call Charles Schepens Uncle Charles, as he married my father’s aunt. What struck me in 1985 when I lived with them in Nahant, Massachusetts was his work ethic—unsurpassed energy is putting it mildly. Even at age 73 and with a bad back, he was still operating and running a full clinic schedule. He exercised by swimming in the cold sea right along the edge of his yard in Nahant. 

The saying, “Behind every good man, there is a better woman,” is true when it came to his wife, Cette. She was an accomplished artist in her own right and always thought she would have Charles to herself one day, after his retirement. Sadly, that was never to happen. He suffered a deadly stroke in March 2006 in Salem, Massachusetts as he finished supper with his cherished wife of nearly 70 years. 


Alice McPherson, MD

Dr. Schepens accepted me into his retina surgery program at a time when no other women had been offered this type of fellowship training. He gave me his full support and allowed me to learn from his expertise.

Without his training, I would have spent the rest of my life doing refractions. But instead, I have been fortunate enough to have had an extensive vitreoretinal surgical practice and to have founded the successful Retina Research Foundation.


Jay S. Duker, MD, FASRS

There are many impressive things about Dr. Schepens, but the trait that stood out the most was his doggedness. All that he did, he did full out. He never took “no” for an answer, and never felt that any challenge was too big.

Of course, the most important contribution he made was to usher us all into the era of modern retinal detachment repair with the introduction of the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope. It took him years to convince the skeptics who continued to attempt to find peripheral breaks using a direct ophthalmoscope. However, eventually all ophthalmologists realized that by identifying the causative breaks, retinal detachment repair success rates could double.


Felix N. Sabates Sr, MD, FACS

Charles Schepens brought researchers and clinicians together and, indeed, was the creator as well as innovator of applied research in ophthalmology. He stressed that he was only a “facilitator.” Of course, he was more—an iconic figure and an example to follow.

He imparted his knowledge to all, and was devoid of the greed and lack of humility shown by some of our uninformed colleagues who fail to give proper credit to a great man. As for the future, I suspect he would say (and I would agree) that the future will be great and will be shaped by young, intelligent people who will continue to pursue the highest principles of our profession.


Tatsuo Hirose, MD

Drs. Hirose and Schepens—with a treasured note.
Photo courtesy Tatsuo Hirose, MD.

Charles Schepens attracted many ophthalmologists to his group, Retina Associates, for clinical fellowship, and scientists to the Schepens Eye Institute for research.

When I was one of Dr. Schepens’ retina fellows, he offered us 2 pieces of advice. First, plan to give your patients what is best for them instead of satisfying your personal interests. Second, do not hesitate to ask them to support your research by donating. He told us not to shy away—to ask for a large amount. These 2 recommendations from Dr. Schepens have benefitted me in my career. I learned medicine from him, but his advice has become equally important.


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