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Gerhard Rudolph Edmund Meyer-Schwickerath

Born 1920
Died 1992

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German ophthalmologist, born September 10, 1920, Elberfeld, Wuppertal; died January 20, 1992, Essen.

Biography of Gerhard Rudolph Edmund Meyer-Schwickerath

Gerhard (Gerd) Rudolph Edmund Meyer-Schwickerath passed the Abitur (Notabitur) in 1937. He then went against family tradition, choosing medicine over law, a decision influenced by his insight that under National Socialism he would not be able to contribute to justice. He began the study of medicine in 1940. During World War II, besides his studies, he worked as a sanitary. A knee wound spared him the service at the front. Shortly after the war he obtained his medical doctorate in Hamburg.

In 1946 Meyer-Schwickerath examined a number of patients who had sustained retinal damage in association with the solar eclipse of July 10, 1945. These were similar to the retinal burns that were suffered by people who had seen the atomic flash from as far as 50 miles away and later went blind. The phenomenon had been known since Plato's time (427-347).

He noticed that the retinal scars caused by their exposure to intense sunlight "resembled the sort of scar resulting from surface diathermy," that is, the kind of scar that doctors were trying to induce by applying heat to the eye to seal retinal holes or treat areas of diabetic retinopathy.

Meyer-Schwickerath first performed an operation – successful – using a photocoagulator in 1949. It was a device of his own design placed on the roof of the clinic to bundle light into a mirror in the operating room.

He discovered that a progressive retinal detachment could be arrested by a scar on the retina. In order to "weld" the retina in position, he developed the photocoagulator, a device that concentrates the sun's light to a small focal point to create retinal lesions. In 1953 he was habilitated with a dissertation on this topic. Later in the 1950's sunlight was replaced by high pressure xenon lamps (invented by American Optical Corporation in Southbridge, Massachusetts). Such lamps were incorporated in a photocoagulator invented by Zeiss Laboratories in Oberkochen.

From 1959 he was Obermedizinalrat at the Städtische Krankenanstalen in Essen, and director of the Essen eye clinic at the Universitätsklinikum Essen until he was emerited in 1985.

Gerhard Meyer-Schwickerath received many awards and honourable doctorates from various universities. He was three times suggested for the Nobel Prize, but never received it. He himself considered his greatest honour the fellowship of the Order Pour le Mérite for Science and Arts in 1978. Among his famous patients was the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990).

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