A Chance Meeting
In the summer of 1950, E. Daniel Johnson, who was serving as District Governor of Massachusetts Lions District 33N, had a visit from a friend at his farm in Lyndeboro, NH. This friend brought with him his 4-year old son who had been blind since birth. During the course of this visit, it was determined that Harry Hartford, who was serving as District Governor of District 33K, had a friend who also had a blind baby.
That friend was Al Hirshberg, a sports writer for the Boston Post and a Trustee of the National Foundation for Eye Research. In October of 1950, they and a small group of Lions had lunch with Dr. Edwin B. Dunphy, Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School and Chief of Staff at Mass. Eye & Ear Infirmary. They were told about the a disease, first reported in 1940 by Dr. Theodore L. Terry.
The disease was known as Retrolental Fibroplasia (also known as baby blindness) and it was affecting 4 out of 5 premature babies weighing less than 4 pounds. Overall, 2500 babies were losing their sight very year. The disease was not only baffling, it was discouraging because there were no funds available to discover its cause.
2,500 babies were losing their sight every year.
Massachusetts Lions Take on Eye Research
In October 1951, the first state committee was appointed by the Massachusetts Lions Council of Governors and in the spring of 1952 Eye Research was voted on and adopted as the only official state-wide project.
In 1953, the Lions Clubs of Multiple District 33 (Massachusetts) adopted MLERF as the first project that would be undertaken on a state-wide level. That first year, the Lions raised $5000. The first eye research grant was presented to a Dr. Ingalls of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ingalls was instrumental in determining that baby blindness was being caused by too much oxygen in the incubators of premature babies.
It was common practice for premature babies to be placed in incubators where they received a rich mixture of oxygen. What wasn’t known at the time was that increased levels of oxygen are actually detrimental to formation of a newborn baby’s eyes. The solution was to install a valve in the incubators to control the flow of oxygen. The cost of the valve: a mere five cents. The disease known as blind baby disease was practically eradicated using these valves.
The solution: a 5-cent valve installed in incubators to control the flow of oxygen.
Since its modest beginnings in the 1950s, MLERF has continued to fund cutting-edge research. Some of the funding supported:
- the Ophthalmic Plastics Laboratory, which developed pure plastic corneas to be used for people afflicted with scarred corneas.
- the Joslin Clinic, which developed the “Lions laser Lens” – a device that can detect diabetes in the eye before any other physical signs appear.
- Tufts New England Medical Center, which developed radioactive isotopes to cure eye and brain tumors.
- Schepens Eye Research Institute (formerly known as the Retina Foundation), which constructed the first “upside down” operating table to repair detached retinas
- Boston University Medical Center, which conceived and developed the first photocoagulator ophthalmic laser and the first clinical specular microscope.
In the past 60-plus years, Massachusetts Lions Eye Research Fund, Inc. has awarded grants exceeding $35 million dollars.