The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania opened in 1874. That same year, Dr. William F. Norris was appointed the first Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Early Leaders in Ophthalmology

On February 3, 1874, Dr. William Fisher Norris became the first Professor of Diseases of the Eye at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), the fourth such appointment made in the United States. Dr. Norris was committed to teaching and research, and was instrumental in the founding of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), one of the first University-owned hospitals dedicated to medical student education. HUP began admitting patients in June 1874. The facility included an eye clinic in the basement, the original location of Penn's Department of Ophthalmology. 

Following Dr. Norris’s unexpected death in 1901, the University of Pennsylvania Trustees elected Dr. George E. de Schweinitz the second Chairman of Ophthalmology. Under Dr. de Schweinitz’s leadership, the eye dispensary and ophthalmic pathology laboratory were renovated and enlarged, and an operating room for eye surgery was created. Dr. de Schweinitz sought to establish standards for ophthalmic care nationally, helping to found the American Board of Ophthalmic Examination (renamed the American Board of Ophthalmology), the nation's first certifying board. He was also the first and only ophthalmologist to be President of the American Medical Association. Dr. de Schweinitz maintained a large practice, counting President Woodrow Wilson among his prominent patients.

In 1924, Dr. Thomas B. Holloway succeeded Dr. de Schweinitz as Chairman. Dr. Holloway was deeply invested in teaching, having previously led development of an ophthalmology training program in the newly established Graduate School of Medicine in 1916. Dr. Holloway introduced a number of clinical upgrades to the department, such as a slit lamp microscope in the eye dispensary and a laboratory of perimetry for visual field testing.

Establishing the Residency Program

When Dr. Francis Heed Adler became the Chairman of Ophthalmology in 1936, ophthalmology residencies were emerging across the United States. Ophthalmologists were beginning to train domestically rather than traveling to European institutions. Dr. Adler recognized the importance of promoting innovative clinical research and growing the next generation of medical leaders at Penn. He advocated for an expanded ophthalmology clinic that would provide the necessary facilities for resident training. In 1937, the Ophthalmology Department introduced the first residency program at Penn, welcoming Drs. Jerry Smith and Harold G. Scheie as the first residents. 

Dr. Scheie and a New Eye Institute

Harold_ScheieDr. Harold G. Scheie succeeded Dr. Adler as Chairman in 1960. Clinical research and the residency program flourished under Dr. Scheie, who created an elective five-year training program that provided residents two years of research and advanced study in related basic sciences. In the 1960's, members of the Department contributed to the ophthalmic literature on topics including cataracts, glaucoma surgery, treatment of hyphema, and the description of Hurler's disease, and Dr. Scheie pioneered glaucoma research and treatment methods. 

By the late 1960's, the Department of Ophthalmology had outgrown its clinical and laboratory facilities. The development and expansion of ophthalmic subspecialties required more equipment and space. Dr. Scheie led fundraising efforts for a new eye hospital and opened the Scheie Eye Institute in 1972. 

Expanding Services and Centers

Real_OPShopWithin the round walls of the Scheie Eye Institute, the next leader of the Department, Dr. Myron Yanoff, fostered the growth of subspecialties. During his chairmanship (1978-1986), he established retina, cornea, glaucoma, and oculoplastic surgery services, all of which were designed to offer cutting-edge patient care and to train the country's finest ophthalmologists.

In 1991, Dr. Stuart L. Fine came from Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute to become the seventh chair of Penn's Department of Ophthalmology. He brought with him a keen interest in public health and epidemiology, resulting in the creation of the Center for Preventive Ophthalmology, Biostatistics and Epidemiology in 1994, and the appointment of a full-time director, Maureen Maguire, PhD. This center has orchestrated a community outreach program to bring eye care to medically under-served individuals, as well as research programs with mentoring for students and faculty.

In the 1990s, the Department's research programs began to increase focus on molecular medicine (genetics). The establishment of the F. M. Kirby Center for Molecular Ophthalmology has made it possible for molecular geneticists to investigate the genetic causes of eye conditions including cataracts, myopia, macular degeneration, and other retinal degenerations. Over the next few decades, researchers continued this work, leading to the first gene therapy for a hereditary eye condition to be developed and approved by the Federal Drug Administration in December 2017.

Current Leadership 

The Penn Department of Ophthalmology remains an international leader in clinical care, translational and basic research, and teaching. In 2010, Dr. Joan M. O’Brien became the eighth Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology and the first woman to hold the position. With nearly 200 publications, Dr. O’Brien has received numerous honors for her contributions to the field of ocular oncology and ocular genetics, as well as teaching and mentoring. Dr. O’Brien's lab is currently conducting a large-scale National Eye Institute funded study on the genetics of primary open-angle glaucoma in African Americans. This study, which has recruited 10,000 participants in Philadelphia, is one of the largest genetic studies of African Americans to date, and the first focusing on glaucoma in this over-affected group. 

Since 2010, the Ophthalmology Department has expanded clinical services, and currently offers highly specialized care in 17 ophthalmic subspecialties. Penn continues to rank among the top five recipients of National Eye Institute funding, and the ophthalmology residency program is ranked in the top 5% nationwide for research output per alumnus. In addition to excellence in patient care, research, and teaching, the Department of Ophthalmology is committed to fostering a culture of diversity and mentorship, developing cross-departmental and cross-institutional collaborations for innovative research and individualized care, and building partnerships with the Philadelphia community to address local health needs. 

Scheie Eye Institute Recent Renovations

Scheie_LobbyIn 2014, extensive renovations and modernization of the Scheie Eye Institute were completed, including state-of-the-art exam and procedure rooms; corridor access to the rest of Penn Presbyterian Medical Center; and a new lobby equipped with an automated check-in system, comfortable seating area, free wifi, device charging stations, courtesy communication center, greeting station and private check-in bays, environmental acoustic system to reduce ambient noise, indirect light sources to protect patients with dilated eyes, large and easily accessible restrooms, and an updated optical shop. These updates were carefully designed to optimize the care process for our patients.

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