Charles L. Schepens, M.D., 1912-2006

cls.jpgCharles L. Schepens was born in Belgium in 1912, and originally studied mathematics at university before turning his interests to medicine.

He received his medical degree in 1935 from the State University of Ghent. In 1937 he served as assistant to Dr. L. Hambresin in Brussels. In 1940, he was inducted as a Captain in the Medical Corps of the Belgian Air Force, where he served until the country was overrun by the Nazis in May of that year. He then escaped to France and worked with the French and Belgian resistance, as described in the recent book The Surgeon and the Shepherd, by Meg Ostrum.  In 1942, under the nom de guerre “Jacques Pérot,” he spearheaded a secret information and evacuation pipeline in the Pyrenees, under the cover of a country lumber mill near the village of Mendive. He was arrested several times by the Gestapo. For this, and for his many later accomplishments in the field of ophthalmology, he was awarded the Medal of the French Légion d'Honneur on March 21, 2006.

During the war, Dr. Schepens fled to London, where at Moorfields Eye Hospital he began work on retinal surgery and the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope. He emigrated to the United States in 1947, when he joined the Howe Laboratory of Ophthalmology, Harvard Medical School, as a fellow in ophthalmic research. In 1949 he founded the first retina service in the world at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.  He rose through the ranks at Harvard Medical School, from instructor to professor, through 1983. He then continued to serve as Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology, Emeritus.

In 1950 Professor Schepens founded The Retina Foundation in Boston. The name was later changed to the Schepens Eye Research Institute, which continues to be the world’s leading independent eye research institution. Growing out of his establishment of the Retina Foundation were also Boston Biomedical Research Institute, and Schepens Retina Associates Foundation.

In addition to developing the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope, Professor Schepens and his associates designed many other ophthalmic instruments including microscissors for vitreous surgery, the small pupil ophthalmoscope, the scanning laser ophthalmoscope, the scanning laser coagulator, and a universal intraocular laser. He pioneered many surgical procedures including scleral buckle techniques and the "open-sky" vitrectomy. His devices and surgical techniques have been credited with raising the success rate of retinal reattachment surgery from 40% to 90%. A prolific writer, he authored over 360 publications on these advances.

Professor Schepens received the Concours Universitaire of Belgium in Therapeutic Science, the New England Ophthalmological Prize for Outstanding Work in the Field of Ophthalmology, The Eyes of Texas Sight Foundation Award (Baylor College of Medicine), the Research to Prevent Blindness Award for Outstanding Ophthalmic Achievement, the First Award of Merit in Retina Research (Retina Research Foundation of Houston), the honor of giving The Jackson Memorial Lecture (American Academy of Ophthalmology), the Commandeur de l' Order de la Couronne Medal from the Belgian Government, the Albrecht von Graefe Award (Society for Contemporary Ophthalmology), the Medaille de la Ville de Paris honorary medal, the Hermann Wacker Prize (Club Jules Gonin), and the Laureate Recognition Award from the American Academy of Ophthalmology. In 1999, he was selected as one of “The Ten Most Influential Ophthalmologists of the Twentieth Century.”

Professor Charles L. Schepens died Tuesday, March 28, 2006 at the age of 94.  He was survived by his wife of 69 years, Marie G. (Vander-Eecken) who died June 9, 2008. Their surviving family includes: their son, Luc J.; their daughters, Claire Delori, Bernadette Butler, and Catherine Wainer; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.