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February 2006

Thomas H. Pettit, MD (1929-2005)

Arch Ophthalmol. 2006;124(2):291. doi:10.1001/archopht.124.2.291

Thomas H. Pettit, MD, was a beloved teacher and highly respected clinician during 3 decades of service to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Department of Ophthalmology and to the Jules Stein Eye Institute. Dr Pettit was also a mentor to each of us, playing a critical role in our careers. He passed away in Utah, on March 10, 2005, after a long illness.

Thomas H. Pettit, MD

Thomas H. Pettit, MD

Dr Pettit was born in 1929 in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was raised in South Pasadena, Calif. He came from a family of respected ophthalmologists and decided early in life that he wanted to be a physician. After graduating from UCLA in 1949, he deferred medical school to serve as a missionary in France for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He returned to the United States after 2 years and entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, eventually graduating at the top of his class in 1955.

Following an internship at the Los Angeles County Hospital and active duty in the US Naval Reserve, Dr Pettit entered the ophthalmology residency program at Washington University in St Louis, Mo. At the completion of his residency training, he remained at Washington University for 3 years, with support from the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness, as an instructor in the Department of Ophthalmology and chief of its clinical service. He then spent the 1962-1963 academic year at the Francis I. Proctor Foundation for Research in Ophthalmology at the University of California, San Francisco, studying ocular microbiology and external diseases of the eye.

In 1963, Dr Pettit was recruited to join the full-time faculty of the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA, where he served as the first chief of the Cornea-External Ocular Disease Division. During his early years at UCLA, he helped design the clinical facilities of the new Jules Stein Eye Institute, which opened in 1966. He served as its associate director from 1971 to 1991 when he retired.

Dr Pettit made important contributions to the field of ophthalmology throughout his career. He published key articles dealing with candidal chorioretinitis, postoperative endophthalmitis, lamellar keratoplasty, and herpetic eye disease. Among his many professional appointments, he served as director of the American Board of Ophthalmology and was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Carrie Estelle Doheny Eye Foundation.

Dr Pettit is best remembered as a dedicated teacher and as a consummate clinician and surgeon. In recognition of these attributes, he was the first recipient of the S. Rodman Irvine Prize, which is awarded to a UCLA Department of Ophthalmology faculty member whose professional actions represent the finest in doctor-patient and doctor-student relationships.

During his tenure as chief, Dr Pettit recruited the three of us to the UCLA Cornea-External Ocular Disease Division. One thing that stands out in all of our minds is the unconditional support that he gave to each of us. Dr Pettit was truly unselfish when it came to nurturing our careers; when one of us left the podium at an annual American Academy of Ophthalmology meeting or elsewhere, true joy and pride in our accomplishments was apparent in his eyes. He always propelled us, rather than himself, into the limelight. His humility, in fact, was legendary.

Dr Pettit was always accessible, not only to us but to other faculty members and trainees, for advice and guidance on anything from career development to patient care matters, or even plumbing problems. When the workday was long, he could be found in his office with students, providing advice and guidance. He was a central, even parental figure in the lives of many people.

Outside of the institute, Dr Pettit was involved in many family-related and church-related activities. He taught Sunday school classes, was a den father for the Boy Scouts of America, and pursued his love of singing and playing woodwind instruments.

Dr Pettit is survived by Betty, his wife of 52 years, and by his 6 children and many grandchildren. He also leaves behind a host of grateful students and colleagues.

Correspondence: Dr Mondino, 100 Stein Plaza, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095 (mondino@jsei.ucla.edu).