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September 2017

In Memoriam: Argye I. Hillis, PhD (July 27, 1933-April 29, 2017)

Author Affiliations
  • 1The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland
  • 2Department of Epidemiology, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland
JAMA Ophthalmol. 2017;135(9):1007-1008. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2017.2636

Personal details of the life of Argye I. Hillis can be found online.1 My goal is to highlight her contributions to ophthalmology, particularly in the area of randomized clinical trials.

Argye I. Hillis, PhD

Argye, as she was known by colleagues and friends, first became interested in ophthalmology when her older son Danny was diagnosed with strabismus while she and her family were living in Denmark. Argye resumed her interest in our medical specialty when she joined the Diabetic Retinopathy Study Coordinating Center at the University of Maryland School of Medicine after completing undergraduate studies in mathematics and a PhD in biostatistics. While at the University of Maryland, she began collaborating with Stuart L. Fine, MD, then at the Wilmer Eye Institute, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, to design the first 2 multicenter randomized trials of the Macular Photocoagulation Study (MPS).

Argye was recruited to the Wilmer faculty in 1979 where she was appointed assistant professor of ophthalmology; she was the first statistician to be recruited to the Wilmer faculty. When the MPS was initiated under the sponsorship of the National Eye Institute (NEI), Argye established the MPS Coordinating Center within Wilmer. Other collaborations during her 3 years at Wilmer resulted in creation of the Wilmer Biostatistics Center, supported through a core grant from the NEI, initiation of a randomized pilot trial of human leukocyte antigen cross-matching to improve outcomes after corneal transplant with Walter J. Stark, Jr, MD, and participation in the coordination and data analysis activities of the Branch Vein Occlusion Study with Daniel Finkelstein, MD. These endeavors led to recruitment of several other biostatisticians and epidemiologists to Wilmer and collaborations with clinical and research faculty on many other projects. Several Wilmer trainees and medical students interested in ophthalmology also benefited from Argye’s expertise and advice during her tenure at Wilmer, including current Wilmer faculty members Susan B. Bressler, MD; Neil M. Bressler, MD; and Peter J. McDonnell, MD.

Argye left Wilmer early in 1982 when her husband, William D. Hillis, MD, accepted a departmental chairmanship at his undergraduate alma mater, Baylor University. However, Argye’s achievements continued to have a large impact on Wilmer. The MPS Coordinating Center expanded upon receipt of additional NEI funding in 1982 and 1985 as new randomized clinical trials were added to the study. After NEI funding of the coordinating centers for the Collaborative Ocular Melanoma Study and Collaborative Corneal Transplantation Studies in 1985, the Wilmer Clinical Trials and Biometry unit was created. That unit thrived until extramural support for the Collaborative Ocular Melanoma Study and the Submacular Surgery trials ended in 2005. The investigators in this unit worked closely not only with the chairmen of these multicenter studies at Wilmer but also with investigators at other institutions to conduct the studies and to analyze and publish both clinical and methodologic findings. The contributions of the Wilmer Biostatistics Center have continued to the present with more than 30 years of NEI sponsorship. Argye remarked at a reception at Wilmer in her honor in 1989 that she felt as if she had “planted an acorn that had grown into a large oak tree.”

After leaving Wilmer, Argye took a position at Scott and White Hospital, where she organized a clinical research group to collaborate with medical colleagues, and joined the faculty of Texas A&M University. She collaborated with ophthalmologists at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute to design the Central Vein Occlusion Study. With NEI funding, she established the Central Vein Occlusion Study Coordinating Center at Scott and White.

During her career, Argye was appointed by the NEI director to serve on the data monitoring committees for several NEI-sponsored multicenter studies (Box). Argye served on the National Advisory Eye Council from 1991 to 1994. She also was a member of the first Advisory Board of the Cochrane Eyes and Vision Group US Project.

Box Section Ref ID

National Eye Institute–Sponsored Multicenter Randomized Clinical Trials for Which Argye I. Hillis Was Appointed to the Data Monitoring Committee

  • Convergence Insufficiency Treatment Trial (CITT)

  • Correction of Myopia Evaluation Trial (COMET)

  • Cryotherapy for Retinopathy of Prematurity (Cryo-ROP)

  • Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT)

  • Early Treatment of Retinopathy of Prematurity (ETROP)

  • Silicone Study (committee chair)

  • Studies of the Ocular Complications of AIDS (SOCA)

  • Submacular Surgery Trials (SST; committee chair)

While at Wilmer, Argye transmitted her enthusiasm for ophthalmology to other biostatisticians and epidemiologists who have made major contributions to the field, most notably Maureen G. Maguire, PhD, Carolyn F. Jones Professor of Ophthalmology, Scheie Eye Institute, University of Pennsylvania; Leslie G. Hyman, PhD, Vice Chair for Research, Wills Eye Hospital and Thomas D. Duane Professor of Ophthalmology, Thomas Jefferson University; and B. Michele Melia, ScM, Senior Biostatistician, Jaeb Center for Health Research.

Although none of Argye’s 3 children elected to follow her into ophthalmology, they may be her most important legacy to medicine and science: Argye Elizabeth Hillis, MD, MA, Professor and Executive Vice-Chair of Neurology, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; David M. Hillis, PhD, Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professor in Natural Sciences, University of Texas at Austin and 1999 MacArthur Fellow; and William Daniel (Danny) Hillis, PhD, Founding Partner of Applied Invention, and currently Visiting Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cofounder of Thinking Machines Corporation, Applied Minds, and the Long Now Foundation, as well as the inaugural Disney Fellow at Walt Disney Imagineering.

In addition to her insight into data analysis issues and critical thinking skills, Argye’s colleagues and friends remember her warmth, enthusiasm, optimism, loving kindness, and altruism. One of her favorite cartoons depicted a crowd of thousands of people with a bubble connected to the head of each one that contained the question “What can one person do?” Argye exemplified in her personal and professional life what one person could do.

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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Barbara S. Hawkins, PhD, The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, 600 N Wolfe St, Wilmer/Woods 467, Baltimore, MD 21287 (bhawkins@jhmi.edu).

Published Online: August 3, 2017. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2017.2636

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: The author has completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest and none were reported.

ObitTree. Argye Hillis: July 27, 1933-April 29, 2017. https://obittree.com/obituary/us/texas/waco/oakcrest-funeral-home/argye-hillis/2912690/. Accessed June 21, 2017.