Contributed by Michael Saad, MD [Cand]
Gerhard Meyer-Schwickerath, MD, born September 10, 1920, created his own path to a life in medicine. His devotion was sparked by an act of justice during the unsettling times of World War II, and grew to form the basis of modern-day eye surgery.
Dr. Meyer-Schwickerath was born in Elberfeld, Germany, into a family of lawyers working under the National Socialist party. His decision to pursue a career in medicine led him on a journey that allowed him to contribute to the defiance of the regime, providing care to those suffering its effects. He began his studies in 1940, working as a medic treating those injured on the front lines of World War II.
Following graduation, Dr. Meyer-Schwickerath met and married Berta Steinbucker in 1945. They had 3 sons and 1 daughter. After the war, he moved to Hamburg and worked at the University of Hamburg-Eppendorf’s eye clinic as an assistant physician. He received his post-doctoral degree and professorship at the University of Bonn in 1953.
Dr. Meyer-Schwickerath became director of the Ophthalmology Center at the Essen University Hospital, which he helped convert from the government-run Essen Municipal Hospital. He served as the director and worked as a professor at the University of Münster until his retirement in 1985.
His work has had an immeasurable impact on ophthalmology. However, the highlight of Dr. Meyer-Schwickerath’s pioneering work can be attributed to his experiments on light coagulation, as these principles continue to be key aspects of modern phototherapy.
After noticing an influx of patients with retinal damage following the solar eclipse on July 10, 1945, Dr. Meyer-Schwickerath became intrigued by the retinal scars they developed. He recognized that the consequential scarring of light could be used to coagulate the retina and hold it in place from re-detachment.
In 1946, Dr. Meyer-Schwickerath began conducting experiments using several mirrors as a heliostat to reflect sunlight through a Galilean telescope in the operating room. The heliostat would rotate to provide optimal influence as the sun moved throughout the day. Dr. Meyer-Schwickerath was challenged by the tradeoff between obtaining optimal retinal attachment and having adequate viable tissue for vision.
His first successful surgery with this innovative device took place in 1949. Dr. Meyer-Schwickerath’s research demonstrated that certain wavelengths of light, 400-900 nm, could pass through the cornea and lens of the eye without loss of sufficient energy.[3,5] In the 1950s, the sunlight was replaced by high-pressure xenon lamps and photocoagulation was subsequently used worldwide.
Meyer-Schwickerath received global recognition for his invention and progress made in ophthalmology. He received honorary doctorates from several universities and was nominated 3 times for a Nobel Prize.
Gerhard Meyer-Schwickerath passed away at the age of 71 on January 20, 1992, in Essen. His legacy lives on in every ophthalmologist performing surgery by means of his fundamental discoveries and the countless patients who can attribute their visual restoration to his boundless dedication.