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Charles Schepens, 94; Doctor Who Helped People Flee Nazis Became an Innovator in Retinal Surgery

April 08, 2006|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Charles Schepens, a World War II hero who helped more than 100 people escape from Nazi-occupied France and a noted ophthalmologist widely considered the father of modern retinal surgery, died March 28 of a massive stroke at his home in Nahant, Mass.

He was 94 and had received the French Legion of Honor from the consul general of France only a few days before his death. His exploits during the war were a secret known only to his family and a few others until the 2004 publication of the book "The Surgeon and the Shepherd" brought them to a wider audience, including French officials.

Born in Belgium, Schepens (pronounced SKAY-pens) had already earned his medical degree when, in the early stages of the war, he joined the Belgian air force. After its defeat, he returned to private medical practice.

He was arrested by the Gestapo in October 1940 on trumped-up charges of using a bus to transport Allied pilots out of Belgium. Although he was released 10 days later, the experience turned the previously apolitical physician into an activist, and he allowed his office to be used as a post office for underground agents, arranging for the transfer of maps and such information as troop movements.

In 1942, a spy in Gestapo headquarters alerted him that he was about to be arrested again, and he escaped to Paris, where he adopted the name Jacques Perot-Spengler, later shortened to Jacques Perot.

Looking over a Michelin map to find an escape route to Spain, he and a group of fellow resistors spied an abandoned sawmill near the town of Mendive in the Pyrenees on the Spanish border. One of the key features was a 12-mile cable car system extending up the mountain and terminating near the border.

Schepens, a rugged outdoorsman, bought the mill in July 1942 with backing from a wealthy French patriot and had it in full operation by the end of the year. The site became a functioning lumber enterprise, taking orders, delivering wood and meeting a payroll.

But men performing manual labor around the mill could surreptitiously ride the cable car system to the top of the mountain and slip into Spain, often with the assistance of a shepherd named Jean Sarochar. Sarochar died in 1975.

More than 100 Allied pilots, POWs, Belgian government officials and others made their way out of France over the cable railway. The system was also used to move documents, currency, propaganda and other materials into and out of France.

Schepens kept his profile low and cooperated with the Nazis to divert suspicion -- so much so that many locals considered him a collaborator. But in July 1943, the Nazis captured a member of the Resistance who told them about Schepens' activities.

When the Gestapo showed up, he later recounted, he told them he would return to Paris to confront his accuser. Then he said, " 'You know, it is now 10 o'clock. I have 150 workers idle, because they have not been given their orders this morning. Give me 10 minutes with them. I'll give the orders and come back.' So I walked out and escaped."

He spent 16 days in the forest before reaching Spain and, eventually, England, where he resumed his medical career.

His wife and children were placed under house arrest by the Nazis, who hoped to use them to lure Schepens back. But they made their own daring escape, hiking through the mountains to reach Spain, and were reunited with Schepens in England nine months after he fled.

Back at work, the doctor began testing a theory he had developed as a medical student that retinal surgery could be performed more precisely if the surgeon used both eyes rather than looking through a monocular microscope.

He tested the theory by building a device known as the indirect binocular ophthalmoscope, piecing it together from bits of metal retrieved from his London hospital after a V-1 bomb attack. The device, which sits on the surgeon's head and leaves his hands free, is now used by surgeons worldwide and is a major reason that the success rate for reattachment of retinas has improved from 40% to more than 90%.

Schepens immigrated to the United States in 1947 and started the retina service at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, part of Harvard Medical School. Three years later, he established what is now the Schepens Eye Research Institute, the largest independent institute for ophthalmology research in the world.

Over the course of his career, which continued well past his retirement from Harvard in 1978, he wrote four books and published more than 360 research papers. Up to the time of his death, he was commuting to Boston three days a week to see patients.

Charles L. Schepens was born in Mouscron, Belgium, in 1912, the son of a general practitioner. The youngest of six children, he had three brothers who also became physicians. After his father died when he was 7, he was raised by one of the brothers.

Schepens studied mathematics in college before taking up the family business of medicine. But the interest in math led to his subsequent interest in ophthalmologic instrumentation. In addition to the ophthalmoscope, he developed a variety of other instruments, including micro-scissors for surgery on the vitreous, the clear gel in the middle of the eye.

According to his family, Schepens was always athletic, with a lifelong interest in woodcutting, swimming and walking.

Had it not been for the intervention of the Nazis, he might have stayed in France in the lumber business, he said.

"It was a wonderful life, you know," he told the Boston Globe in 2004.

Schepens is survived by his wife of 69 years, Marie Germaine, known as Cette; a son, Luc, of Southborough, Mass.; three daughters, Bernadette Butler of Nahant, Catherine Rojas of Petaluma, Calif., and Claire Delori of Brussels; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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