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June 1999

Helenor Campbell Wilder Foerster, 1895-1998

Arch Ophthalmol. 1999;117(6):849-850. doi:10.1001/archopht.117.6.849

Helenor Campbell Wilder Foerster, whose illustrious career as a pioneering ophthalmic pathologist encompassed more than half of this century, died at her home in San Francisco, Calif, September 14, 1998, at the age of 103 years.

Born May 9, 1895, in Baltimore, Md, and educated in her native city at the Bryn Mawr and Western high schools, Helenor Campbell initiated her long scientific journey in 1914 as an apprentice laboratory technician and bacteriologist at the Department of Pathology at The Johns Hopkins Medical School, Baltimore, where she worked under the direction of William H. Welch and his associate Milton C. Winternitz. For patriotic reasons, she briefly interrupted her activities at Johns Hopkins during World War I to serve as a bacteriologist at Camp Meade (now Fort George G. Meade), Maryland. When the war ended she returned to Johns Hopkins as a bacteriologist working with William MacCallum, who had succeeded Welch as Professor of Pathology.

Her 33-year career at the Army Medical Museum (subsequently the Army Institute of Pathology and now the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology [AFIP]) began in December 1920 when she was recruited by the museum's curator, George C. Callender. Having completed 6 years of training, she was well qualified to take on the task of processing the influx of ophthalmic and otolaryngologic specimens that began in 1922, after the museum formed an alliance with the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology for the dual purpose of building a permanent collection of specimens (the Registry of Ophthalmic Pathology) and offering diagnostic consultative service. Helenor Campbell was the histopathology technician assigned to work with Callender to staff the newly inaugurated Section on Ophthalmic and Otolaryngologic Pathology. During the 1920s and 1930s she absorbed an exceptional understanding of ocular histology and pathology through her daily interactions with such outstanding military pathologists as Callender, James Ash, and Elbert DeCoursey; and also from Registry of Ophthalmic Pathology consultants who reviewed most of the difficult and unusual cases. Frederick Verhoeff, Jonas Friedenwald, and Georgiana Theobold were the ones who proved to be most helpful and timely in rendering their consultative reports. She also collaborated with Ash and DeCoursey in selecting and preparing illustrations for the first 3 editions of the Atlas of Ophthalmic Pathology, printed and bound at the Army Medical Museum. Later still, she would assist Friedenwald and members of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology's Committee on Revision of the Atlases by preparing all of the illustrations and contributing portions of the text for the green-bound first edition of the atlas, published in 1952 by W. B. Saunders Co under a joint contract between the AFIP and the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology.

In 1929 Helenor Campbell married Stuart Gardiner Wilder, who died less than 2 years later of complications following surgery to repair a collapsed lung incurred in a plane crash. During the ensuing 25 years she won the respect and admiration of her colleagues at the museum as well as the world of ophthalmology, and through steady excellence rose in rank to become head of the Section of Ophthalmic Pathology. To this day she remains the only person in AFIP history entrusted with the duties and responsibilities of a pathologist despite the lack of an undergraduate, medical, dental, or veterinary degree. Notwithstanding the lack of the "doctor" title, Mrs Wilder was not only "accepted" by departmental chairpersons throughout the world, but loved and even adored by many. Shortly after she informed DeCoursey of her plans to retire from the AFIP, he recruited one of his junior staff pathologists, Lt Col Lorenz E. Zimmerman, to become her successor. Several months later she escorted Zimmerman to the 1953 annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology at the Palmer House in Chicago, Ill, because she wanted to be certain he would meet every VIP in attendance. She delighted in presenting him to eminent professors and departmental chairpersons from all over the world, and boasted about his great potential; but it was clear from the way the attendees embraced and kissed her that she would be sorely missed.

Helenor Campbell Wilder's acute sense of observation, combined with her persistent curiosity about the pathogenesis of ocular diseases, resulted in more than 35 scholarly contributions to the scientific literature in 17 different refereed publications. She was the sole author of 18 of these. She is best known for her twin discoveries of the protozoal organism Toxoplasma gondii as the cause of a form of blinding retinal inflammation previously attributed to tuberculosis, and of the presence of the larval form of the nematode Toxocara canis in enucleated eyes suspected of harboring retinoblastoma. Her classic reports not only called attention to the clinical and microscopic characteristics of these ocular infestations, which resulted in the institution of appropriate therapeutic and public health preventative measures, but also stimulated other basic and clinical scientists to further investigate these entities. She also deserves great credit for developing the Wilder stain for reticulin and for collaborating with Callender in formulating the widely used, and still valid, Callender-Wilder classification of intraocular melanomas.

In 1947 Mrs Wilder was the first woman to be elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Ophthalmogy and Otolaryngology and was awarded the Academy Honor Society's Gold Key. Several additional honors were bestowed on her shortly after she announced her plans to retire from the AFIP in 1953 in preparation for her marriage the following year to Roland C. Foerster, a prominent San Francisco attorney. She was named Woman of the Year for Science by the Woman's National Press Club. The presentation was made in Washington, DC, by President and Mrs Eisenhower. Mrs Wilder was the only person ever elected a member of the American Association of Pathologists and Bacteriologists without an MD degree. In 1954 she received the Exceptional Civilian Service Award, the highest civilian award of the Department of Defense. In commenting about her studies of Toxoplasma species, DeCoursey, her former colleague and former director of the AFIP, stated: "It is the consensus of the medical profession that Mrs Foerster's discovery advanced ophthalmic science 50 years." When Mills College, Oakland, Calif, conferred an honorary LLD degree on her in 1954 she was recognized for her studies of disease, her contributions to public health, and her "vision of human needs." In 1956 she received the Leslie Dana Gold Medal of the St Louis Society for the Blind.

The move to San Francisco did not dull Mrs Foerster's keen interest in ophthalmic pathology. She maintained an official association with former colleagues at the AFIP as an appointed consultant to the professional staff and also accepted dual appointments at the Francis Proctor Foundation for Research in Ophthalmology as an associate research ophthalmologist, and at the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of California Medical School as a lecturer in ophthalmic pathology. There, between 1954 and 1976, she worked with Frederick Cordes, Michael Hogan, Phillips Thygeson, Levon Garron, William Spencer, and Brooks Crawford while continuing to contribute to the ophthalmic literature, present papers at national and regional meetings, attend weekly eye pathology sessions, and consult on difficult cases. In 1958, she and her husband also established a scholarship fund in her name dedicated to the continuation of ophthalmic pathology research at the University of California Medical Center. Mr Foerster died in 1961. In 1968 she was guest of honor at the European Ophthalmic Pathology Society meeting in Paris, France.

In her later years, Mrs Foerster continued her contacts with her medical colleagues throughout the world. She attended Verhoeff Society meetings as an emeritus member until she was well into her ninth decade of life. Helenor Campbell Wilder Foerster was far from a 1-dimensional person. Those privileged to have known her remember her charming personality, gracious hospitality, delightful sense of humor, and loyalty to her many friends and colleagues. She is survived by 8 nieces and nephews and 28 grandnieces and grandnephews.