Patz receives Presidential Medal

Arnall Patz ’43C-’45M has earned some of the highest accolades America has to offer, including the 1956 Albert Lasker Medical Research Award (often called the “American Nobel”) and, in June, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil award. But he says it took a compliment from pop star Stevie Wonder to really impress his grandchildren.

When Patz met Wonder at a fundraising dinner, Wonder told him, “I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. I was black, I was poor, and I was totally blind. But you know, tonight I met Dr. Arnall Patz, and I just think of all the children who have benefited from his discoveries. I just thank the lord for sending Dr. Patz to this planet.”

One of twelve recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Patz was honored for his lifetime contributions to the field of ophthamology, including his discovery of the most common cause of childhood blindness in the early 1950s. Although his achievements came too late for Stevie Wonder, he is credited with saving the sight of countless premature infants.

Early in his career, Patz conducted research that showed that high levels of oxygen commonly used to treat premature babies could cause retrolental fibroplasia, an abnormal overgrowth of blood vessels in the eye. This condition, now known as retinopathy of prematurity or ROP, caused irreparable damage to the retina, resulting in about two-thirds of the total cases of childhood blindness at the time. Despite fierce resistance from the medical profession, Patz’s findings were quickly confirmed in larger studies, and the practice of giving infants high levels of oxygen for longer periods than necessary was revised.

“Dr. Patz will always be considered, by his peers and those throughout our profession, as a man who contributed so critically to preserving sight,” said Peter J. McDonnell, current director of the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University, which Patz headed from 1979 to 1989.

Soon after the discovery of ROP, Patz won the Lasker Award and had the chance to meet Helen Keller at the ceremony. The experience left an impression on him that has lasted nearly fifty years.

“She was absolutely brilliant, in spite of having lost all her vision, her hearing, and 98 percent of her speech,” says Patz. He recalls that when Keller picked up his Lasker medal, she knew immediately that there had been a mistake: it was actually the medal for Jonas Salk, who won the same year for his work on polio. Keller’s sensitive fingers told her the name was wrong, and she carefully placed Patz’s hand over the lettering while photos were being snapped.

A native of Elberton, Georgia, Patz transferred to Emory from the University of Georgia a year before entering the medical school.

Patz says he was “overwhelmed” when he learned he was chosen for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received from President George W. Bush on June 23.

“I was very moved by the experience,” he says. “I have never seen a medal like this. It’s a little heavy, although I am still strong enough to carry it.”–P.P.P.




© 2004 Emory University