Obituary: Leonard Apt, 90, doctor-scientist who gave gift of vision to millions of children
February 8, 2013
4 min read
Internationally respected UCLA eye surgeon Dr. Leonard Apt, who co-developed an inexpensive antiseptic eye drop that substantially reduced the incidence of blindness in children in developing countries, died Feb. 1 at UCLA Health - Santa Monica Medical Center, after a brief illness. He was 90.
A founding member of the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA and an emeritus professor of ophthalmology, Apt was the first physician in the world to become board-certified in both pediatrics and ophthalmology. He devoted his career to preventing blindness in children.
Together with longtime collaborator Dr. Sherwin Isenberg, Apt identified povidone–iodine as a safe topical antimicrobial agent. Prior to their research, no previous studies provided a standard for sterilizing the surface of the eye before surgery. Known commercially as Betadine, the eye drop is now used throughout the world to prepare patients for eye surgery and prevent infection. Apt and Isenberg also demonstrated that Betadine was safer, cheaper and more effective than silver nitrate or antibiotics in preventing eye disease in newborns.
"Leonard described himself as 'a man of firsts,' and he really was," said Isenberg, UCLA's Laraine and David Gerber Professor of Ophthalmology and chief of ophthalmology at Los Angeles County Harbor–UCLA Medical Center. "He had very clever ideas and constantly looked for meaningful ways to improve patient care on a large scale. His prolific research resulted in innovations in pediatrics and ophthalmology that are now used all over the world."
Born to a wealthy family in Philadelphia on June 28, 1922, Apt entered the University of Pennsylvania at age 14 and graduated with highest honors. After earning his medical degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1945, he trained in pediatrics at Harvard University and pathology at the University of Cincinnati and completed a National Institutes of Health ophthalmology fellowship at Columbia University.
Apt joined the UCLA faculty in 1961 and founded the first full-time pediatric ophthalmology and strabismus division at a U.S. medical school. He was co-founder and co-director of the UCLA Center to Prevent Childhood Blindness, which ran an extensive preschool vision-screening program.
Over his long and productive career, he invented several diagnostic tests, including the widely used Apt test, which distinguishes between fetal and maternal blood after birth. He was the first to use plastic tubing for blood transfusions, to develop a method for predicting allergy to catgut and collagen sutures prior to surgery, to pinpoint a formula for the eyes' proper position under anesthesia, and to identify several new diseases.
"Leonard made the world a better place," said Dr. Bradley Straatsma, a professor emeritus at the Jules Stein Eye Institute who met Apt 50 years ago while a medical resident at Columbia University, where Apt was pursuing an ophthalmology fellowship. "He was a brilliant physician–scientist, a tireless advocate for the eye care of children, a generous philanthropist and a true friend."
In addition to publishing more than 300 articles that left a major impact on pediatrics and ophthalmology, Apt received many honors and awards, including the American Academy of Pediatrics Lifetime Achievement Award, the UCLA Alumni Association Award for Excellence and the UCLA Dickson Emeritus Professorship Award. To honor him, the American Academy of Pediatrics created an annual lecture that bears his name. In 2010, he was selected National Physician of the Year by Castle Connolly Medical Ltd.
Apt was a passionate UCLA philanthropist and staunch supporter of eye research, the arts, student scholarships, the humanities, college athletics and many other initiatives across campus. He endowed both a chair and a fellowship at UCLA's Department of Ophthalmology. An ardent Bruins fan, he always had great center-court seats at UCLA basketball games.
"Leonard was a true Renaissance man: a scholar, clinician, educator, scientist, philanthropist, patron of the arts, sports enthusiast and wine connoisseur. His accomplishments and achievements were legendary," said Dr. Bartley Mondino, director of the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA and chairman of ophthalmology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "On a personal level, he was charming, engaging, humorous and generous."
Preceded in death by three sisters, Apt is survived by two nephews, Kenneth Rappaport of San Diego and Robert Hersh of Thousand Oaks, Calif. Services were held Feb. 5 in Los Angeles. Donations in his memory may be made to the UCLA Foundation, c/o Gail Summers, Development Office, Jules Stein Eye Institute, 100 Stein Plaza, Room 1-124, Los Angeles, Calif. 90095-7000.
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