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May 2000

Leonard Christensen, MD (1913-1999)

Arch Ophthalmol. 2000;118(5):734. doi:10.1001/archopht.118.5.734

Leonard Christensen, MD, died peacefully in his home on November 2, 1999, from cancer and complications of Parkinson disease. He was born August 16, 1913, in Cloquet, Minn, the youngest of 3 children of working-class Norwegian parents. He graduated from University of Oregon Medical School in 1941 and, after an internship at Ancker Hospital in St Paul, Minn, he served in the South Pacific as a navy flight surgeon until the end of World War II. He completed his ophthalmology residency at the University of Oregon and received a Heed fellowship for study with Georgiana Theobald, MD, in Chicago, Ill, and Algernon Reese, MD, in New York. He returned and joined the faculty at University of Oregon Medical School, where he worked until his retirement in 1978. From 1978 until 1989 he was in private practice in Portland, Ore.

Leonard Christensen, MD

Leonard Christensen, MD

He was the last of the high-volume surgical ophthalmologists who did everything. Based at the university, he was limited to seeing patients who were referred to his care by other physicians; however, he had an extraordinarily busy practice that consisted of corneal and retinal surgery and treating glaucoma and cataracts. At the same time, he was the working ocular pathologist as well as director of the Eye Pathology Laboratory. He was a busy man who always had the time to get something else done. He established the first eye bank in the state of Oregon, served on and was chair of the American Board of Ophthalmology, and published dozens of research articles, book chapters, and symposia.

He was a quiet, shy, almost reclusive man and yet was still approachable. He had a relaxed and easy demeanor and an abundance of friends and acquaintances for whom he was just "Chris." To some of his family, he was "Len"; for me, he was Uncle Len. He was introspective and deeply analytical in his thinking, and had great confidence in the ability to solve clinical problems through the application of the basic sciences and common sense. This approach to solving problems is well demonstrated in a review of his publications. He has several "firsts" to his credit: first demonstration of cytomegalovirus in the human eye, first report of a drug given systemically that normalized elevated intraocular pressure without exerting a mechanical effect on the eye, and first to show that eccentric corneal lesions not amenable to trephine isolation could be excised and the defects successfully repaired by freehand keratoplasty. In his American Ophthalmologic Society thesis, The Nature of the Cytoid Body, he presented a significant advancement in understanding by fashioning an elegant histochemical study. He also performed the first penetrating keratoplasty in the state of Oregon.

He was also an iconoclast and frequently skeptical of the ophthalmic dogma of his day. He demonstrated that narrow-angle glaucoma and flat anterior chambers required a component of positive posterior vitreous pressure and were not caused simply by an enlarged lens and/or wound leak, which was the prevailing wisdom at the time. He reported the severe corneal complications from prescription topical anesthetics and advocated abolishing the manufacture of ocular anesthetic ointments, products that are no longer commercially available. He described numerous surgical innovations, some of which are still useful today.

Even at the end of his professional career, he was still looking forward to and excited by new developments and innovations in ophthalmology. His enthusiasm was infectious to those around him. I was privileged to live in his home during my medical school years, a time during which he was widowed with 3 small children. Our numerous talks by the fire developed my own interest in ophthalmology; his keen intellect and dry wit revealed his particularly insightful views of the world. This alone was an invaluable experience that has served me well. He had an avid interest in current events, especially political and economic issues, but most of all, he was the perfect role model of the dignified, compassionate physician with excellent clinical skills and a strong science background.

He encouraged his children to follow their own dreams and they did. One son is a novelist and another a musician and composer. His only daughter chose to be an ophthalmologist.

His family, friends, and profession will miss him.