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Home » News and Events » Director Dr. Carl Kupfer Steps Down After 30 Years, July 5, 2000
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NEI Press Release
National Eye Institute

July 5, 2000

National Eye Institute Director Dr. Carl Kupfer Steps Down After 30 Years at NIH

Photo available in downloadable, camera-ready format on the NEI website at, or by calling (301) 496-5248.

With a long record of accomplishment behind him, Carl Kupfer, MD, the only person to ever serve as director of the National Eye Institute (NEI), is stepping down from his position on July 15 after 30 years at the helm of the Federal government's leading vision research agency.

"During Dr. Kupfer's long tenure, the NEI has been critical in the shaping of vision research in this country, and his outstanding leadership has contributed enormously to the fabric of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)," said Ruth Kirschstein, MD, acting director of the NIH. "Due to his leadership, NEI research results have made a difference in the lives of millions of Americans. His leadership has made NEI, today, the largest and most comprehensive vision research center in the world."

After Congress established the National Eye Institute in 1968, Dr. Kupfer was appointed its first director in January 1970. He moved quickly to identify the needs and opportunities in vision research. Dr. Kupfer insisted that the area of central visual processing should be part of the NEI mission, a decision that finally was accepted by the NIH leadership. He also stressed the importance of the individual research grant as opposed to the more accepted large, umbrella-type program project and center grants. This process resulted in the first of many five-year strategic plans that greatly accelerated the progress of vision research in the U.S. and ultimately became a model for other institutes at NIH. "Our first strategic plan identified areas in vision research that needed immediate attention," Dr. Kupfer said. "By identifying these opportunities, the entire research process was hastened and the public's tax dollars were used more efficiently."

Early on, Dr. Kupfer established an Office of Biometry and Epidemiology and launched the landmark Diabetic Retinopathy Study, setting a standard for modern clinical trials in vision research. An outspoken and effective advocate for high-quality clinical research at NIH, Dr. Kupfer expanded research at the NEI by establishing laboratory programs in molecular biology, immunology, neuroscience, and molecular genetics. "These programs allow NEI scientists to move quickly into new and innovative research areas," Dr. Kupfer said. "Our first priority has always been the highest quality research and projects that give us the opportunity for 'lab-to-bedside' clinical trials, where laboratory research can be conducted, and treatments quickly applied, to small groups of patients."

During Dr. Kupfer's tenure, the number of vision researchers nationwide has been steadily increasing. As a result, the NEI supports a growing number of vision research grants and training awards to more than 1600 investigators at universities, medical centers, and other institutions throughout the U.S. "Our nation's investment in eye disease research has yielded substantial dividends," Dr. Kupfer said. "Continued public support has always been crucial to achieving medical breakthroughs in eye disease treatment."

As NEI Director, Dr. Kupfer also oversaw the development of the NEI's innovative National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP), a partnership of about 60 professional, civic, and voluntary organizations and government agencies concerned with eye health. The main focus of NEHEP is to conduct public and professional education programs that help prevent blindness, reduce visual impairment, and increase awareness of services and devices that are available for people with low vision. "The program helps disseminate research findings from the laboratory to health professionals, patients, and the public," Dr. Kupfer said. "This is a natural extension of our activities in vision research, and is the final step in the research process."

Prior to his appointment as NEI Director, Dr. Kupfer served for four years as professor and chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Between 1960 and 1966, he was first an instructor, then assistant professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. He is a graduate of Yale University and received his medical degree at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Dr. Kupfer has been awarded honorary Doctorates of Science from the University of Pennsylvania and the State University of New York, and has received numerous awards from national and international organizations, including the Lighthouse International's Pisart Vision Award for "noteworthy contributions to the prevention, cure, or treatment of severe vision impairment or blindness;" the Public Service Award in Ophthalmology from the American Academy of Ophthalmology; the Humanitarian Award from Lions Clubs International for "outstanding humanitarian achievements;" and election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He is a member of numerous societies and organizations, including The Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars and Academia Ophthalmologica Internationalis, and has earned the rank of Distinguished Executive in the Federal Government's Senior Executive Service. As President of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness from 1982-90, Dr. Kupfer increased the collaboration among the world's non-governmental organizations working in the blindness prevention field with the World Health Organization.

Dr. Kupfer has served for six NIH Directors and six U.S. Presidents, and has witnessed the NEI budget grow from $24 million in 1970 to more than $450 million today. He will not leave the NIH entirely; instead, he will devote his time to completing a catalogue of the Cogan Collection, a compilation of clinical cases and pathology reports of over 50,000 patients. The collection was a major career work of vision researcher David Cogan, MD, whom Dr. Kupfer fondly calls "one of the NEI's greatest supporters and benefactors." Dr. Kupfer will also continue to see patients as part of his clinical research activities at the NIH clinical center.

"My journey at the NEI and the NIH has been richly rewarding," Dr. Kupfer said. "As a scientist, clinician, and administrator, I have been wonderfully blessed with experiences that have brought me to the cutting edge of vision research. One of my most satisfying achievements has been helping to shape the direction of this research during the past 30 years. We have seen great advances in treating eye disease and preventing vision loss, and as a researcher, it is immensely fulfilling to know that the sight-saving treatments we developed have helped prolong vision and improved people's quality of life.

"I know that in the near future, NEI-funded studies and clinical trials will lead to more significant breakthroughs. These have been exciting and challenging times for vision research, and I am fortunate to have been a part of it."

# # #
The National Eye Institute:
30 Years of Research Achievement

When Congress established the National Eye Institute (NEI) in 1968, it made a long-term commitment to protect the vision of the American people. Today, thanks to continued Congressional and public support, this investment has yielded substantial dividends for the nation. There are many medical advances that have resulted from NEI-supported research and made a difference in the lives of millions of Americans.

As a result of NEI-sponsored laboratory and clinical research trials, researchers have discovered that:

Also, NEI-sponsored scientists have identified:

Technological development supported by the NEI has contributed to major advances in diagnosing and treating eye disease. This includes:

June 2001

This page was last modified in August 2004

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