April 13, 2001

Gass receives Helen Keller award

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Dr. J. Donald M. Gass, professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

Gass receives Helen Keller award

Dr. J. Donald M. Gass, professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, will be awarded one of Ophthalmology’s most coveted prizes, The Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research, on April 30 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The prize was created in 1994 by the Helen Keller Eye Research Foundation and honors the foremost figure in history to have overcome blindness. The prize selection committee includes scientists and research physicians who are leading figures in the international vision research community.

Gass, one of the world’s most respected ophthalmologists and experts on diseases of the retina, macula and uvea, joins seven past Helen Keller Laureates. The dual winners of the 1996 prize were Nobel Prize winners Drs. David Hubel of Harvard Medical School and Torsten Wiesel of Rockefeller University.

Gass will receive the award at a special dinner on April 30 at the annual convention of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO). Last year’s winner was Harvard’s John E. Dowling, Ph.D.

“Dr. Gass is considered a world authority on medical management of retinal disease and the sole leading authority on macular disease,” said fellow faculty member Dr. John S. Penn, vice chair of Research and professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. “He wrote the atlas of macular disease. There is no other person in this business who has contributed more and who knows more about this area of ophthalmology.

“He is joining a small fraternity that is composed of the greatest minds in vision research,” Penn said. “If one were charged with gathering a subset of the most outstanding contributors to the field, the Helen Keller Laureates would be the place to start. It is not just one more in the long list of Dr. Gass’ career accolades, it is a crowning achievement. We are proud to have him as a member of our faculty.”

Gass said he is honored to receive an award named for Keller.

“It’s always nice to get awards, but this one is particularly nice,” he said. “I remember reading about Helen Keller in grammar school, even before I knew I wanted to be a doctor or an ophthalmologist. It was an inspiring tale of someone who was both blind and deaf, but who accomplished so much.”

Gass, who joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1995, is a 1957 graduate of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and the class’s Founder’s Medalist.

Five members of his class of 50 chose ophthalmology, a specialty which had attracted little attention before at VUSM. Since then, Gass has devoted his life to studying and treating patients with diseases of one of the body’s smallest organs. His career has resulted in many honors and awards of merit, including the establishment of the Gass Medal given for outstanding contributions in macular disease by the Macular Society. He was the first recipient in 1987.

In 1999, at age 70, he was named one of the 10 most influential ophthalmologists of the 20th century. The designation, conducted by the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, came from a poll of nearly 33,000 ophthalmologists around the world.

Gass began his career practicing general ophthalmology. He became actively involved in ocular surgery for cataract, glaucoma, orbital and retinal diseases and became interested in the new technique of fluoroscein angiography, that for the first time permitted the detailed photographic study of physiological as well as anatomical changes in the retina and choroid.

This new technique and his skills in ocular pathology led to his future clinical and research interests in degenerative, inflammatory and neoplastic diseases of the inner eye.

One of his main efforts has been simply sorting out the many inflammatory, degenerative and hamartomatous disorders that appear similar in nature, but have very different causes and outcomes. Previously, they were either unrecognized or lumped together under less specific names.

He is also well known for his work in finding the link between acute zonal occult outer retinopathy (AZOOR) and other retinal syndromes and in the treatment of diffuse unilateral subacute neuroretinitis.

The Helen Keller Foundation for Education and Research is based on the legacy of Helen Keller and her request – “help me to hasten the day when there shall be no more blindness.” The foundation strives to prevent blindness by advancing vision research and education, and aspires to be a leader in integrating vision research with the greater biomedical research community, by creating and coordinating a peer-reviewed, worldwide network of investigators and institutions.