Hewlett Award Winner Mark S. Blumenkranz, MD, MMS: “I love what I do. It’s like a dream.”

Mark S. Blumenkranz, MD, MMS, H. J. Smead professor of ophthalmology, emeritus, is the 2019 Hewlett Award Winner.

The Albion Walter Hewlett Award is a Department of Medicine-sponsored award honoring an exceptional physician with ties to Stanford. It is named for Albion Walter Hewlett, professor and executive head of the Stanford Department of Medicine from 1916 to 1925, who was renowned for his outstanding contributions to patient care and medical science.

The 2019 winner of the Hewlett Award is Mark S. Blumenkranz, MD, MMS, H. J. Smead professor of ophthalmology, emeritus, for whom the word “polymath” might have been coined. An extraordinarily gifted eye surgeon with a focus on vitreoretinal diseases, he has also succeeded in such administrative roles as head of the vitreoretinal service; department chairman for 18 years; and involvement in the planning, fundraising, and construction of the Byers Eye Institute of Stanford, which he served as founding director between 2010 and 2015.

In addition to his medical, surgical, and administrative skills, Blumenkranz has academic talents that span service on journal editorial boards, as president of specialty ophthalmology societies, on the steering committee of the Audacious Goals Initiative of the National Eye Institute, and as a Fellow of the Corporation of Brown University, his alma mater, where he chaired the Medical School Committee for a dozen years.

How It Began

He has done all of this atop bachelor’s, master’s, and medical degrees from Brown; internship and residency at Stanford; and fellowship at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, after which he joined the faculty there in 1980. This was followed by his founding a highly regarded vitreoretinal fellowship training program at William Beaumont Eye Institute in 1985. Finally, in 1992, he returned to Stanford to head the vitreoretinal service before stepping up to become chairman of the department in 1997.

His professional trajectory was impressive from the start. He chose Brown University in part because it offered an integrated undergraduate and graduate program in medicine and additionally was one of the few coed Ivy League schools at the time (and it happens that he met his wife Recia there): “I was particularly interested that Brown did a good job of focusing on its undergraduate education. Rhode Island has been known as a free-thinking state since colonial times, a place where you could be your own person with less need to be a conformist in religious or secular matters. The year I was a freshman Brown changed to an open curriculum where you had a lot of freedom to experiment and create your own major, and there were no mandatory grades. You were in charge of your own education, which suited my instincts to be self-directed.”

What led him to select ophthalmology as his specialty? “As I got into general surgery as an intern, I realized that I liked microsurgery the most, and of all the microsurgeries ophthalmology was to me the most interesting in terms of fine motor control required for successful results and the elegance of the eye as a finely tuned-optical and neurosensory system. One thing I noticed on my ophthalmology rotations was how grateful patients were and how much immediate gratification you experienced as a surgeon. Coupling that with basic science, which I was always interested in, as well as  the advantages and challenges of working in a one-inch sphere, I stumbled on this idea of combining biochemistry and pharmacology with the more mechanical aspects of problem solving.”

“I had recognized that many of the major advances in medicine at that time had their earliest roots in ophthalmology including medical laser systems, novel microsurgical techniques, advanced medical imaging systems, and even the concept of large multicenter randomized clinical trials, of which the Diabetic Retinopathy Study was a good example. I reasoned that working in ophthalmic and vision science research would be a bridge to impacts in other medical specialties.”