of curing blindness leads to founding of world’s first eye
bank, restoring sight to thousands.
Some miracles just happen; some like The Eye-Bank
for Sight Restoration occur because people with a vision of how
the world could be a better place make them happen. This pioneering
agency which changed the lives of thousands and led the way for
the whole field of transplantation, resulted from the brilliant
partnership of an ophthalmologist with a dream and a dynamic woman
with a genius for motivating people.
The dream was to create a system that would allow
people to pledge their eyes at death so that others, suffering from
corneal blindness, could regain their sight.
As early as 1905, doctors had discovered that corneal
blindness could be cured by removing the damaged cornea —
the clear, dime-sized tissue covering the eye — and replacing
it with another clear human cornea. These transplants were rarely
performed, however, because donor tissue was not readily available.
young ophthalmologist, R. Townley Paton, M.D.,
was convinced that cornea transplantation was a viable cure that
could provide thousands of patients with visual redemption.
Dr. Paton had trained with the famous Dr.
William Holland Wilmer at Johns Hopkins
in Baltimore. He later established his own practice in New York
City and became affiliated with Manhattan Eye, Ear &
There he began to perform cornea transplants with
tissue he obtained privately. One source of tissue was prisoners
on death row.
At the time, the death penalty was in practice,
so Dr. Paton would make periodic visits to nearby Sing-Sing prison.
With permission from proper authorities, he would obtain consent
for donation from prisoners on death row and bring the donor tissue
back to the hospital after a prisoner had been executed.
It may have been on one of these late night forays
that Dr. Paton came to the brilliant conclusion that what was needed
was a system for collecting eye donations, processing them and distributing
them to doctors for transplant surgeries.
People could pledge their eyes in advance of their
death, leaving a legacy of sight, just as they already made out
their wills. He envisioned an eye bank.
Following several preliminary meetings, Dr. Paton
and a small group of doctors and laymen from surrounding institutions
formed an organization on December 15, 1944 in a small room at Manhattan
Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital and laid the groundwork for The Eye-Bank
for Sight Restoration.
They designed a plan in which eyes could be systematically
obtained, preserved and redistributed to doctors who were performing
cornea transplant operations.
A working administrative program was set up, a technical
plan evolved, lists for potential committees were drafted and files
help implement the plan, Dr. Paton wisely solicited the help of
Mrs. Aida Breckinridge, a known powerhouse for
Mrs. Breckinridge had worked tirelessIy to establish
The Wilmer Institute which opened in 1929. And
after that she led other causes including President Hoover's Child
Well-connected to society, business leaders and
political figures of the time, Mrs. Breckinridge could wield the
influence needed to popularize a unique idea. Plus, the thought
of an agency to restore sight appealed to her because she herself
suffered from glaucoma and was nearly blind.
Mrs. Breckinridge went to work in a small room loaned
by Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. In a later report she
disclosed that she furnished the room herself from thrift shops
in the neighborhood and initially paid her secretary's salary out
of her own pocket.
The eye bank was underway. But progress was not
without its hurdles — some predictable, others unforeseen.
State regulators were put off from incorporating
a bank that did not do financial transactions. With legal counsel,
the problem was solved by inserting a hyphen into the phrase eye
bank and adding further description, hence, The Eye-Bank for Sight
Restoration, Inc., as it is called today.
There was no legal precedent for obtaining anatomical
gifts. So laws had to be amended allowing any person to direct the
manner in which his body should be disposed of after death.
Dr. Paton and Mrs. Breckinridge worked their separate magic toward
the same goal of providing this miraculous cure for blindness.
Hospitals, first in New York, then across the country,
were brought on board to help provide donor tissue. Ophthalmologists
from different parts of the country came for training in cornea
transplant surgery. They would then return home ready to treat patients
with the new procedure. Dr. Paton opened a clinic and treated patients
for free on the first visit. He published his findings and procedures
in medical journals and held symposiums for doctors to attend.
The American Red Cross was called upon to help in
the quick transport of donor tissue first to The Eye-Bank for processing
then back out to a doctor waiting to perform the sight-restoring
The Eye-Bank was the only central clearinghouse for tissue, support
was sought from Eastern Airlines. Then headed by
Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, Eastern agreed to fly donated tissue across
the country to where it was needed.
Mrs. Breckinridge was a genius at publicity. After
joining The Eye-Bank cause, she immediately set out to enlist support
from influential people. The first Eye-Bank Council included such
notables as Ethel Barrymore and Booth Tarkington; Thomas Watson,
founder of IBM; Senator Harry F. Byrd and former President Hoover.
Five former First Ladies joined —Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, Mrs.
Thomas Preston (the former Mrs. Grover Cleveland), Mrs. Calvin Coolidge,
Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Mrs. Breckinridge had obtained The Eye-Bank's start-up
funding, $25,000, from the Milbank Foundation and invited Albert
Milbank to chair the Council.
A brochure describing this modern miracle of sight
restoration was needed to educate the public. J. Walter Thompson
Advertising Agency contributed the first brochure for The Eye-Bank
entitled "A Gift Like the Gifts of God."
It included true and wonderful stories of people
regaining their eyesight through cornea transplantation after years
of blindness and implored people to consider leaving their eyes
after death. It also contained an eye-donor pledge card.
Mrs. Breckinridge recognized the power of the press.
With Dr. Paton's help, she released information about The Eye-Bank's
mission, the emotional stories of patients receiving the gift of
sight and explained the cornea transplant procedure in laymen's
The first article appeared in The New York
Times Magazine in February, 1945. Another touching piece
appeared in the Reader's Digest in November of 1945. Widely read
in this country, as well as in translated editions around the world,
the Reader's Digest article made a major impact in spreading the
word about eye donation. For a year following its publication, the
edition was carried in the pocket of every seat on Eastern Airlines.
These articles and hundreds of others in newspapers
around the country, as well as commentary by radio personalities,
generated a lot of interest for The Eye-Bank. People donated their
eyes and others received the gift of sight.
the end of the first year, 60 cornea transplants had been made possible,
according to The Eye-Bank's first Annual Report. The initial network
of 22 hospitals in the New York area had grown to include 56 others
across the country.
Since it was founded, The Eye-Bank has supplied
tissue for more than 44,000 sight saving cornea transplants. And
up until 1997, The Eye-Bank continued to operate out of private
offices at Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital. But necessary
expansion and modernization required a move.
In July, 1997 The Eye-Bank relocated to 120 Wall
Street in New York City – a move which provided newly-designed
administrative offices and a state-of-the-art cornea laboratory.
Even during the relocation effort, The Eye-Bank maintained round-the-clock
operations for processing sight-saving donor eye tissue.
Progress brought other changes along the way.
Within a relatively short time after it was founded,
The Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration was decentralized. Corneal surgeons
were located across the country and eye bank methodology for screening
and preserving tissue was disseminated. Other eye banks were opened
to handle tissue on a more local level.
In 1961, The Eye Bank Association of America was
founded with 25 member eye banks. Today the membership
exceeds a hundred and includes locations in Canada and Puerto Rico.
Eye banks now exist throughout the world.
Now, more than 33,000 cornea transplants
are performed each year in the United States. More than 1,100
transplants are performed annually in the New York area alone with
tissue provided by The Eye-Bank.
While cornea transplant surgery was always highly
successful, advanced medical technology has improved the success
rate to approximately 95 percent. Since the cornea has no blood
supply, it is seldom subject to the rejections that plague other
In the beginning, cornea transplant patients had
to remain in the hospital for up to two weeks, their heads held
still with sandbags to safeguard against rejection.
Now, surgical microscopes and improved instrumentation
expedite the procedure for both the surgeon and the patient. Today,
cornea transplants are often done on an out-patient basis.
Two things about eye banking do remain the same—the
smile recipients have when their sight is restored and their gratitude
to the generous donors who made it possible.