receives Presidential Medal
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 nations
highest civil award. But he says it took a compliment from
pop star Stevie Wonder to really impress his grandchildren.
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.
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
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,
Patzs findings were quickly confirmed in larger
studies, and the practice of giving infants high levels
of oxygen for longer periods than necessary was revised.
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.
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.
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. Kellers sensitive
fingers told her the name was wrong, and she carefully
placed Patzs hand over the lettering while photos
were being snapped.
native of Elberton, Georgia, Patz transferred to Emory
from the University of Georgia a year before entering
the medical school.
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.
was very moved by the experience, he says. I
have never seen a medal like this. Its a little
heavy, although I am still strong enough to carry it.P.P.P.