When Richard O. Schultz, MD, arrived at the Marquette University School of Medicine, predecessor to MCW, as the chair of the newly established department of ophthalmology, he needed to bring together the vision care team – not just figuratively, but literally. "In the late 1960s, we were spread out over something like 10 locations, including wings in both County Hospital buildings and the Cramer Building downtown," recalls Dr. Schultz.
The department needed a single home, and Dr. Schultz found a group to support his vision: Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB), a nonprofit created in 1960 by Jules Stein. RPB had conducted the first comprehensive assessment of vision research in the US; one conclusion was the need to support the development of comprehensive eye centers around the country that would bring together all aspects of vision care under one roof.
Through Dr. Schultz's influence, Milwaukee became a promising location for one of those centers, and in 1970, RPB began fundraising initiatives to support the building of an MCW Eye Institute.
After years of letters, phone calls and pitches to the community, along with the eventual financial support of Milwaukee County to supplement $1.5 million in private donations, construction of the $4.4 million, eight-story building began in September 1974. In late 1976, the Eye Institute opened as one of the first dedicated eye care centers in the country.
"By combining educational programs, patient care and cutting-edge research under the same roof, we hoped to create an environment in which each facet reaped the benefits of its counterparts," says Dr. Schultz. In those first few years, the mix of full- and part-time faculty cared for more than 20,000 patients (performing surgery in the Eye Institute on about 20 percent of them), conducted research to improve outcomes in cornea transplants and retina surgery, and trained MCW's 100th ophthalmology resident – setting the stage for decades of productivity to come.
Continual renovations – including two National Institutes of Health construction grants – have transformed the interior of the Eye Institute over the past 40 years, but the mission of improving, restoring and preserving sight remains the same. Today, MCW Eye Institute faculty provide state-of-the-art clinical and surgical care (more than 80,000 patient visits and 3,600 surgical cases each year). Researchers actively take a multidisciplinary approach to improving the fundamental understanding, diagnosis and management of eye diseases; in fact, the eighth-floor RD and Linda Peters Foundation Vision Science Laboratories of the Eye Institute are dedicated specifically to the Advanced Ocular Imaging Program, a unique effort that fosters regular collaboration among clinicians and researchers. Faculty are committed to teaching the next generation of vision care providers through the department's residency program and various clinical and research postdoctoral fellowships, including a new one-year fellowship in pediatric ophthalmology (where a shortage of specialists exists).
In some ways, the recently renamed department of ophthalmology & visual sciences has come full circle in the past 40 years. "We are always looking to better serve the community, which now means providing care beyond the confines of the Eye Institute," says Dale Heuer, MD, Dr. Schultz's successor as department chair (only the second in 50 years). Today, Eye Institute physicians also see patients at multiple Froedtert & MCW health network locations and Children's Hospital of Wisconsin clinics. Indeed, MCW's ophthalmology program has expanded beyond the imposing concrete façade of the 40-year-old building, but the purpose of the Eye Institute remains as critical as ever: to stand tall as the unifying center of academic vision care in southeastern Wisconsin.
– Karri Stock
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