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.
‘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