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Dr. Charles Kelman, 74; Eye Expert Devised Outpatient Cataract Surgery

June 06, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Dr. Charles Kelman, an ophthalmologist who developed an outpatient cataract operation that has helped 100 million people nationwide improve their vision, has died. He was 74.

Kelman died Tuesday of lung cancer in Boca Raton, Fla.

In 1992, Kelman received the National Medal of Technology from President George H.W. Bush, and he was inducted last month into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

The idea for the outpatient cataract surgery, known as phacoemulsification, came to Kelman as he sat in his dentist's office having his teeth cleaned with an ultrasonic device. He devised a way to use a similar vibrating, ultrasonic tip to break up the cataract that clouds vision and suction it out with a small needle. He introduced the procedure in 1967.

The development revolutionized cataract surgery, which previously involved a 10-day hospital stay, a painful operation and extensive recuperation.

Kelman's simplified technique, which enables a patient to return to work or other normal pursuits within a day, is performed 1 million times annually in the U.S.

In the 1970s, Kelman also developed artificial lenses for post-cataract surgery patients, now routinely implanted in the eye, obviating the extremely thick glasses previously used.

Success came slowly. Kelman recalled in his 1985 memoir, "Through My Eyes: The Story of a Surgeon Who Dared to Take On the Medical World," that his research initially yielded no solutions.

When he tried small drills on laboratory animals, for example, he was able to remove the cataract but destroyed the eye in the process.

Neurosurgeons have adapted Kelman's technique to remove tumors from the brain and spinal cord in children.

Kelman was born in New York City and earned his bachelor's degree at Tufts University.

He attended medical school at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, and was a clinical professor of ophthalmology at New York Medical College.

Kelman also was a successful amateur jazz saxophonist and clarinetist and stand-up comedian.

Kelman utilized his performing skills to become a popular guest on national television shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman.

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