[Skip to Navigation]
Sign In
February 2005

Charles D. Kelman, MD (1930-2004)

Arch Ophthalmol. 2005;123(2):287-288. doi:10.1001/archopht.123.2.287

History chronicles the accomplishments of distinguished people whose ideas have influenced the course of events for future generations. We marvel at the achievements of these individuals and from a historical perspective often cast them as larger-than-life figures. We were fortunate to have had one of these special people in our midst. Yet despite his celebrity, Charles D. Kelman, MD, was an approachable, warm, humorous, and generous person. We feel a great sense of loss with his passing.

Charles D. Kelman, MD

Charles D. Kelman, MD

Charles Kelman was born in Brooklyn, NY, on May 23, 1930. He graduated from Tufts University in Boston, Mass, and received his medical degree from the University of Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland. He returned to the United States for his internship at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn and then completed his ophthalmology residency training at The Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, Pa. In 1960, he entered the private practice of ophthalmology. Early in his career, Dr Kelman sought new methods to facilitate cataract surgery. He was at the forefront in the use of cryosurgery for intracapsular cataract extraction. One might assume that with his contribution to the development of cryoextraction, which became widely accepted and conferred a greater degree of safety to cataract extraction, his work was over. In fact, it was only the beginning. Dr Kelman envisioned a small-incision cataract procedure that would permit a shortened hospital stay or perhaps no hospital stay at all, as well as the ability of a patient to resume normal and customary activities almost immediately. So, beginning in 1962, initially working independently with the support of private grants, he devised the technique that ultimately became phacoemulsification. In 1967, he reported on “Phaco-emulsification and Aspiration—A New Technique for Cataract Removal: A Preliminary Report” in the American Journal of Ophthalmology.1 After its introduction, he instituted innovative training courses for ophthalmologists interested in learning this new technique—another first, since the courses were given outside a university department setting.

Phacoemulsification has evolved into the most significant advance in ophthalmic surgery. This procedure combined with intraocular lens implantation is the most successful rehabilitative procedure in all of medicine. Dr Kelman led ophthalmology to adopt the concept of small-incision surgery, which resulted in shortened hospital stays and a rapid return to normal activities. This far-reaching concept for cataract removal preceded the trend of minimally invasive surgery that was ultimately undertaken by our colleagues in other surgical specialties. Dr Kelman realized that many ophthalmologists, who had accepted phacoemulsification as their preferred technique for cataract surgery, were then obliged to widen the small surgical incision for implantation of an intraocular lens. He designed an intraocular lens that could be inserted through a standard phaco incision to retain the benefits of small-incision surgery. This was followed by the introduction of several other styles of anterior chamber intraocular lenses that were widely used in a variety of surgical situations.

Dr Kelman has been honored by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, San Francisco, Calif; the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, Fairfax, Va; the American Society of Contemporary Ophthalmology, Chicago, Ill; and the International Congress of Ophthalmology. He delivered the first American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery Innovator’s Lecture in 1985; this lectureship now bears his name. In 1989, he also presented the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery’s Binkhorst Lecture. In 1999, Dr Kelman served as president of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery. He received the Laureate Recognition Award of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the Ridley Medal from the International Congress of Ophthalmology. His achievements were recognized by the institutions where he trained; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by Tufts University and was honored as The Arthur J. Bedell Memorial Lecturer at The Wills Eye Hospital in 1991. In 1999, he was voted as 1 of the 10 most influential ophthalmologists of the 20th century by the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery. The Wills Eye Hospital named its research facility the Charles D. Kelman Laboratory and Library, and he was awarded a doctor of letters degree by The Wills Eye Hospital Retina Service of the Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, in 2000.

Dr Kelman was clinical professor of Ophthalmology at the New York Medical College, Valhalla, and an attending surgeon at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital, New York, NY, and at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, New York.

His accomplishments were also recognized outside of ophthalmology. He received the American Academy of Achievement Award in 1970. President George H. W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Technology in 1992. Dr Kelman was awarded the Inventor of the Year Award by the New York Patent, Trademark, and Copyright Law Association, New York, for his invention of phacoemulsification, and in May 2004, he was inducted into The National Inventors Hall of Fame—a crowning recognition of his outstanding contribution to ophthalmic surgery.

His talents amazed all of us who were privileged to know him. He was an accomplished jazz saxophonist, a writer and composer, an avid golfer, and a helicopter pilot. He managed to devote equal measures of enthusiasm to his undertakings and mastered each of them. The common thread in all that Charlie touched was his ability to envision a solution to quandaries that others may not even have perceived. His innovative spirit pervaded all of his endeavors and through his lectures and writings he encouraged his colleagues to explore their hidden creativity.

We will remember Charlie each day as we perform cataract surgery and see the results of our surgery. We are grateful to him for devising a better way to remove a cataract, for persisting with his idea under contentious circumstances, and, when the technique was sufficiently refined, for generously teaching it to his colleagues. But perhaps what most epitomizes the legacy of Charlie Kelman is the impact his discovery has made on the lives of the millions of people worldwide who have benefited from the genius of his procedure.

Dr Kelman is survived by his wife, Ann; his children, Lesley Kelman Koeppel, Jennifer, Evan, Jason, and Seth; his son-in-law, David Koeppel; and his grandchildren.

Correspondence: Dr Obstbaum, Department of Ophthalmology, Lenox Hill Hospital, 100 E 77th St, New York, NY 10021-1888 (saobstbaum@aol.com).

Kelman  CD Phaco-emulsification and aspiration—a new technique of cataract removal: a preliminary report.  Am J Ophthalmol 1967;6423- 35PubMedGoogle Scholar