Dr. John Harry King, Jr., IEF’s visionary founder and first medical director, was the first graduate of the Walter Reed General Hospital Ophthalmology Residency Program in 1948. His distinguished 20-year career in the US Army included assignments as Flight Surgeon in both the European and Pacific Theaters during World War II and as the US Army Director of Research. Dr. King retired from the Army after serving as Chief of Ophthalmology at the Walter Reed Army Hospital as it was then called, from 1955-1958 where he was the ophthalmologist for Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.
Dr. King was a pioneer in corneal transplant surgery. In 1954 while still in the Army, Dr. King developed a process of preserving corneas for transplantation by dehydrating the tissue and storing it in anhydrous glycerin solution. The tissue, preserved at room temperature, was used successfully in lamellar (partial thickness) corneal transplants after more than 23 years of storage. Preserving corneal tissue was critical in keeping it healthy until it could be transplanted into the eye of a blind person.
After retiring from the military, Dr. King became Professor of Ophthalmology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He was instrumental in organizing local, national and international eye banks with support from the Lions Clubs. Dr. King together with the distinguished ophthalmologist Dr. Conrad Behrens published the first edition of An Atlas of Ophthalmic Surgery, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1961. The second edition was published in 1970 by Dr. King and Joseph A.C. Wadsworth, MD who succeeded the late Dr. Behrens.
Dr. Tom Dooley, the missionary in Laos whose brief life ended in January 1961, told Dr. King of the great numbers of people blind due to scarred corneas. Under the auspices of Medico, the medical arm of CARE, Dr. King formed the “International Eye Bank”. Fulfilling a promise to Tom Dooley, Dr. King organized a team to visit Hong Kong and to train ophthalmologists in corneal transplantation.
Recognizing that much of the world’s blindness could be prevented, he left CARE/Medico in 1965 and changed the name of the International Eye Bank to the International Eye Foundation (IEF). Dr. King’s vision was to “promote peace through the prevention of blindness”. After just 13 years, IEF had shipped over 7,000 corneas, fresh and preserved, for grafting in developing countries, and helped organize 35 eye banks in 32 countries. Sixty surgical teams had visited 22 countries, and fellowships were developed to train ophthalmologists from the developing world. Short and long-term US ophthalmologists and paramedicals were posted to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean to build national eye care services and train local eye care professionals. Major blindness prevalence surveys were being undertaken and large public health initiatives to address trachoma and blinding malnutrition caused by vitamin A deficiency were being implemented.
Dr. King was a gifted teacher, published hundreds of scientific articles, wrote textbooks, received countless awards in the United States and abroad, and was a great humanitarian. His dedication to preventing blindness and restoring sight became a reality through the international Eye Foundation which has carried on, expanded, and evolved for over 50 years.