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History of Corneal Surgery 

The Founder of the First Eye Bank: R. Townley Paton, MD

David Paton, MD

Abstract

By 1944, the eye bank was established at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. It was a single room, occupied largely by a single person, Aida Breckenridge, a remarkable woman who had been instrumental in fund raising to create the Wilmer Institute and now was totally dedicated to this new entity. She was a power person - a formidable presence, a society-based crusader. Incidentally, for a single year, the bank was moved to Cornell University Medical Center where John McLean was the professor, but it was thereafter returned to the original site at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital where it has remained ever since: The Eye Bank for Sight Restoration. There have been only five Executive Directors after Mrs Breckenridge until the present one, Mary Jane O'Neill - most all of them also remarkably capable persons upon whose shoulders the actual work of eye banking has been rested.

And now there are hundreds of eye banks around the world, and many other kinds of tissue banks have more recently been developed. It was always my father's conviction that a medically-related organization with intrusion into the public domain must have its medical policies controlled by medical people. This has remained the management principle at the first eye bank and may account in part for its sustained success over decades of difficult evolution. Dr Wing Chu is currently that eye bank's remarkably capable medical director.

In the earliest efforts to raise money to meet the expenses of the eye bank, publicity was required. A system of pledge cards for willing future donors to sign was one of the most effective means the bank had of making its presence known. Moreover, Paton (more willing than Wilmer to involve his own patients) approached many wealthy persons with eye troubles and found in them staunch supporters of his bank. But more money was needed. Mrs Breckenridge and various other laypersons who had joined the bank's board had no hesitation in soliciting journalists to tell the eye bank story in newspapers, magazines, and radio reports. The material that resulted lauded the eye bank, mentioned the hospital where it was located, and gave the name of the founder. There were even interviews with resulting quotes and commentary. The medical profession was aroused. Many were outspokenly critical. In the 1940s, having one's name mentioned in news stories was for scoundrels - certainly not for professionals.

Ophthalmological societies and hospital committees considered the wrongness of my father's name being mentioned in the lay press and gave him severe reprimands (unwritten) for his audacity and complicity in respect to the press - unwritten, unfortunately, for these would be fascinating historic documents today. By our present standards, those PR releases on behalf of the eye bank would hardly seem the once verboten verbiage they were considered by the most ethical and influential leaders of American ophthalmology in the 1940s and 1950s. Castroviejo and Paton were uniquely different from each other, but each was chastised for being mentioned in public publications. From what I said earlier, we can surmise that the turmoils of an evolving medical profession caused chronic wounds for Castroviejo. My father was hurt, too, but not obsessed by being considered negatively unconventional for a positive contribution. My mother was angered by it. I told you earlier of how she responded to affronts on her husband. But, the first eye bank was born - and human frailties were less important.

Townley Paton lived in New York City for 30 years and later "retired" to a soon busy practice in Southampton. There, the local university gave him an honorary degree…

10.3928/1081-597X-19910301-17

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