Issue: July 1, 2004
July 01, 2004
6 min read

Visionary, inventor Charles D. Kelman is dead at age 74

Issue: July 1, 2004
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Charles D. Kelman, MD

Charles D. Kelman, MD [photo]

It was with pride and humor, not frustration or bitterness that Charles D. Kelman, MD, would recount his illustrious fight with established ophthalmology to gain acceptance for one of the foundations of modern-day ophthalmology, “Kelman phacoemulsification.” It is now with sadness that established ophthalmology mourns the passing of Dr. Kelman, who died on June 1.

It is widely quoted that his contributions — extracapsular cataract extraction with irrigation and aspiration — along with its predecessor, the cyroprobe, and the many IOLs he developed have helped restore vision in 100 million patients worldwide.

In a 2002 Ocular Surgery News interview, he said, “Ophthalmology is a field I really love. I may have given some to ophthalmology, but it’s given a lot back to me.”

Ocular Surgery News asked Dr. Kelman’s fellow surgeons to comment on his passing and what he has given to ophthalmology and to them personally.

Achievements outside the ‘establishment’

I have had the distinct privilege of meeting Dr. Kelman in 1970 when I began my residency and over the years had the chance to get know him both professionally and personally.

His unhappiness with the way organized ophthalmology failed to recognize his contribution of cryosurgery in ophthalmology led him to resolve that his next innovation — phacoemulsification — would be introduced and promulgated without the “establishment.” It was a pleasure to be present at the closing of the circle when Charlie received the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s highest honor, the Laureate Award.

It was a great honor for New York Medical College and The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary to have had Dr. Kelman as a long-time member of our department.

Joseph B. Walsh, MD
Department of Ophthalmology
The New York Eye & Ear Infirmary
New York Medical College


Charles Kelman was an extraordinary man. An outstanding surgeon with the dexterity and skills to attract and treat the rich and famous and earn the respect of even his harshest critics. An inventive mind, he generated 100 patents and seminal work in cryoextraction of the human cataract, retinal cryopexy, small incision cataract extraction by phacoemulsification, and phakic and aphakic lens implantation to name only a few.

An entrepreneur par excellence. A leader and advocate for ophthalmology. A talented musician and entertainer. A skilled athlete excelling in his chosen sport, golf. A loyal and generous friend and teacher. A loving husband and father. A unique and special person.

It was a joy to be a small part of his life. His legacy will be carried forward for generations by all of us whom he touched. We will miss him but he will always be a part of us.

Richard L. Lindstrom, MD
Chief Medical Editor
Ocular Surgery News

Innovative, influential, thoughtful

There are three adjectives to describe Charlie Kelman: innovative, influential and thoughtful.

Innovative. When Roger Steinert and I first started working on ophthalmic laser research in 1981, we recognized that Charlie was one of two or three ophthalmologists in the United States who had recognized the revolutionary impact of Nd:YAG technology, which was the final step in establishing the primacy of extracapsular cataract surgery. Charlie was a great teacher and organized a series of YAG laser training courses at his office at the Empire State Building. He was kind enough to include us, two young Turks, in these programs. I will always remember those New York trips.

Influential. When Charlie spoke, smart ophthalmologists listened, whether it was his thoughts on new IOLs, on video technology, or on the merits of going to a “short game” golf school.

Thoughtful. When I became chairman of ophthalmology at Tufts University, Charlie, an alumnus, and I developed a special bond. I was there when he was honored as a distinguished Tufts alumnus. In 1993, I was the guest of honor at a fundraising cruise in Boston. As I waited to board the ship, a Western Union messenger tracked me down. He bore a congratulatory message from someone who was a thoughtful friend: Charlie Kelman.

Carmen A. Puliafito, MD, MBA
OSN Retina/Vitreous Section Editor


Charlie Kelman was, and will always be, my inspiration. He challenged the accepted and had the courage to persevere in the face of extreme ridicule and rejection. He was a visionary driven by a dream; he simply refused to fail. As an educator he was gifted, and as a performer on any stage he was unrivaled. His sense of humor was wonderful and his zest for life was extraordinary.

Although passionate about his beliefs, he was a gentle man with many good friends around the world. While everyone recognizes his innovative genius and excellence as a surgeon, many do not realize that he was equally outstanding as a loving and supportive father. Charlie’s devotion to his children and wife was second to none.

I keep Charlie’s picture on my desk, so that every day I am reminded of the positive influence Charlie has had on my career.

Robert H. Osher, MD
OSN Cataract Surgery Section Member


A major setback to phacoemulsification occurred in the fall of 1973 when Medicare declared it “experimental and not payable.” In the face of losing cataract patients, prominent ophthalmologists told Medicare that “the first 50 cases are blinded during the learning curve.”

Charlie did not help matters by replying that anyone over 30 years of age was “too old to learn.” He was also outside of the standard of cataract practice by discharging patients to full activity the day after surgery whereas, at the time, the standard was a 6-day hospital stay.

That same fall, at the AAO meeting, 12 of us met with Charlie for a “midnight breakfast” to discuss what steps we could take to encourage established ophthalmology to accept phaco. At phaco’s darkest moment – the midnight breakfast – our mood was one of discouragement. We could not do phacoemulsfication without risking a malpractice suit and loss of our license, in addition to no Medicare reimbursement. Charlie on the other hand remained upbeat. He said, “Now we are meeting with the AAO but soon they will be meeting with us.” These words were prophetic.

After a review of intracapsular cataract extraction cases and phaco cases, an AAO committe found the complication rates were equal. Payment by Medicare was reinstated.

Now all of ophthalmology is paying tribute to Charles David Kelman. Thanks Charlie for all that you have done for us and cataract patients worldwide.

Richard P. Kratz, MD
Newport Beach, Calif.

Courage of his conviction

Charlie Kelman’s contributions to ophthalmology are legendary. While Charlie is now gone, the fruits of his labor remain with all of us who have been fortunate enough to share his profession.

He was a rare visionary. He saw sooner than most the new paradigm of cataract surgery as a refractive procedure. He understood that this depended primarily upon the refractive benefits of a much smaller incision. This was the vision that drew him to phacoemulsification. He was also truly courageous to have achieved so much against such odds.

I suspect the younger half of our profession has little appreciation of that struggle. With phaco now fully accepted worldwide, it is easy to forget how Charlie’s most important contribution was vilified initially. When I think of all of Charlie’s unique gifts, it is the courage of his conviction that make me most grateful, for without that courage he would surely have wavered in the face of the opposition and criticism he encountered.

Without phaco, refractive cataract surgery — surely one of the most impressive achievements in the history of ophthalmology — could not have become a reality. So when you push the microscope away at the conclusion of your next cataract surgery, take a moment to appreciate all that you have just delivered to the benefit of your patient. Take a moment also, to thank Charlie Kelman, for without his unyielding courage that operation would not have been possible.

William F. Maloney, MD
OSN Cataract Surgery Section Editor

Pioneering ophthalmologist

Ocular Surgery News was created and exists because of the pioneering ophthalmolgists who had the vision to push the envelopes of technique and technology like Dr. Kelman. They are a voice to be heard and OSN is a forum for the spirit of innovation so prevalent in the field of ophthalmology. Dr. Kelman’s work and vision will continue to inspire the staff of this publication and his colleagues who go on.

The editors of Ocular Surgery News

For Your Information:
  • Charles D. Kelman, MD, is survived by his wife, Ann, 5 children and 3 grandchildren. A memorial service was held in Boca Raton, Fla., on June 4. His family is considering a memorial service in New York. Contributions may be made to the Dr. Charles and Ann Kelman Family Foundation, 220 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016. For full biographical information, visit