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April 2000

Helena B. Fedukowicz (1900-1998)

Arch Ophthalmol. 2000;118(4):595. doi:10.1001/archopht.118.4.595

Helena B. Fedukowicz, a pioneer educator in ocular bacteriology, reminisced that her life was like a fairy tale—with a sad beginning and a happy ending.

Helena B. Fedukowicz

Helena B. Fedukowicz

Born in the Ukraine, she graduated from the Yekaterinoslav Medical Academy, Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, in 1921 and joined its faculty. Thereafter, she lectured on ocular infections at the Moscow Eye Hospital and became a professor of ophthalmology at the Kiev Medical School, where she completed a thesis on intraocular melanoma. In 1942, she became a professor of ophthalmology in Vinniza (Ukraine) and married Waclaw Fedukowicz, a geophysicist. During this time, Dr Biantovskaya met Ivan Pavlov and Vladimir Filatov and encountered Nikolai Bukharin, leader of the communist party's right wing, while mountain climbing. When Stalin rose to power, that suspicious chance encounter prompted an investigation. A daughter of an Orthodox priest, she was next accused of poisoning a drinking well with laboratory bacteria. These "awful, miserable years" worsened with the Nazi invasion and closing of her medical school. Fleeing to Poland, the married couple were captured and sent to a work camp in Germany. They managed to escape, but spent 5 years confined at a Bavarian settlement village, awaiting assistance from the International Relief Organization. Without citizenship or passports, they were "suspended between heaven and earth." Ultimately, they were able to emigrate to America.

When they arrived in America in 1949, the penniless couple lived in an unfurnished apartment in Brooklyn, NY. Through the Polish Committee, Dr Fedukowicz met an exiled aristocrat, Prince Sapieha, whose philanthropic connections changed her life. Through him, she met George N. Wise, MD, at New York University, who was impressed by her clinical expertise and obtained a fellowship for her in the department of ophthalmology studying the eyes of children with tuberculosis. Although she did not have a US medical degree, she was appointed director of ophthalmic bacteriology at New York University's Bellevue Hospital. She insisted that residents bring every patient with a putative ocular infection to her laboratory, where together they would collect, examine, and culture microbial specimens and engage in Socratic quizzing.

Dr Fedukowicz's research contributions were largely clinical. She authored more than 25 Russian publications, including articles on ocular rosacea, lysozyme, and pigmented limbal lesions. Her seminal American contribution involved the relationship between the derelicts of New York's Bowery, near Bellevue Hospital, and the high incidence in that population of Moraxella keratoconjunctivitis. Leaving the laboratory, she and her residents would trek to the Bowery, culture material in hand, and examine the local derelicts. The team would enter bars, offering 50 cents to any who would submit to a quick swab. In this way, Dr Fedukowicz was able to trace Moraxella to its endemic source, link it to alcoholism and malnutrition, and clarify the organism's taxonomy, morphology, and clinical characteristics.

In 1963, her classic text, External Infections of the Eye, the first English text on the subject, was published. The unanimously applauded volume emphasized clinicomicrobiologic correlation, enhanced by remarkable color plates by Beatrice Grover, and found an instant niche at teaching institutions.

Dr Fedukowicz retired to Sarasota, Fla, in 1976. Well into her 90s, she entertained her former students during the week of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology conference with home-cooked meals and an oral examination in Russian writers and composers. She was elected as an honorary fellow of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and was honored for lifetime scholarly contributions by the Immunology/Microbiology Section of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology. During her final years, despite macular degeneration, she would optimistically exclaim, "I still have 4 and a half senses!" We will remember Helena Fedukowicz as a warm and regal lady, as well as a gifted microbiologist and clinician, who was blessed with an unquenchable passion for sharing her insights with students everywhere throughout her long life.