Fifty-two years ago, when ophthalmologist Ira A. Abrahamson Jr., MD, joined the University of Cincinnati faculty, a colleague and friend, Albert Sabin, MD, told Abrahamson the greatest purpose was to help people as much as he could in this life. While Sabin made medical history as the developer of the first live, attenuated polio vaccine, Abrahamson, a professor emeritus in the UC College of Medicine’s Department of Ophthalmology, made his mark as well … evidenced throughout his life and illustrious career in medicine.
Although Abrahamson has won numerous awards and salutations from across the globe, his impact was evident yet again on Monday, Sept. 29, when UC President Santa Ono, PhD, bestowed him with the President’s Award for Excellence for his contributions to medicine and the greater good of mankind.
"The principal criterion for this award, which is given at the discretion of UC’s president, is a significant contribution to the purposes and ideals of the university that resulted from the high quality of an individual’s endeavors. This is unmistakably the case for Dr. Ira A. Abrahamson Jr.,” Ono said before placing the medallion on Abrahamson at an award ceremony held in the atrium of the CARE/Crawley Building on UC’s medical campus.
The award, established in the 1970s, is only presented to a select few annually. The event was attended by UC leaders in both administration and medicine and Abrahamson’s family: his wife, Linda, his daughter, Susan, his son, Richard, who is a leading ophthalmologic surgeon, his granddaughter, Kady, and his sister, Jean, who is an ophthalmic assistant. His other sister, Margaret Abrahamson Halle, of Memphis, Tennessee, who could not attend, is also an ophthalmologist.
Both Ira’s sister, Jean, and his daughter, Susan, read letters from satisfied patients.
The Abrahamson family has had three generations of graduates from the UC College of Medicine.
Joking that he wasn’t usually at a loss for words, Abrahamson paused in gratitude before reflecting on a lifetime of contributions to improving sight and warding off blindness in children and adults…
The son and namesake of a prominent Cincinnati ophthalmologist, Ira A. Abrahamson Jr., M.D., graduated from the UC College of Medicine in February, 1948 and followed with an internship in Cincinnati at what was then called General Hospital. He conducted a two-year residency at the Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary before joining the armed forces, where he was especially interested in eye surgeries for military personnel whose eyes turned in or out, resulting in double vision and eventual blindness in the deviating eye. It was during this time, he says, he realized while he could align the eyes to appear normal, he couldn’t surgically fix the vision issues associated with many of the eye abnormalities because the diagnoses had come too late, after the age of seven years. After leaving the military, he returned to Cook County Hospital in Chicago (1953-1955) to pursue specialized training.
"I could make them good looking, but I couldn’t make them see better,” he told the audience of deciding to make it his mission to spread the word about early eye screening in children and address correctable eye conditions nationwide. One of the ways he did this was to collaborate with Cincinnati’s local Rotary Club 17 to encourage screenings for all children, especially in underserved communities. Today, more than 1,200 Rotary organizations carry his baton, helping to eliminate preventable causes of blindness in approximately 13,000 children a year. Both Abrahamson and Ono are Rotary Club members, as was Sabin.
From the military, Abrahamson went into private practice with his father and then, in 1964, joined the UC Department of Ophthalmology, where he also served as an educator and researcher for over 40 years and authored four textbooks—including the popular "Know Your Eyes”—and countless peer- reviewed papers.
"His contributions are greatly deserving,” his nominator Thomas Boat, MD, dean of the College of Medicine, remarked, citing as Abrahamson’s seminal achievement the founding of the Abrahamson Pediatric Eye Institute at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1995.
Although Abrahamson retired in 2004, his name and actions will remain present at the college as he recently pledged a gift of $2million to establish an endowed chair position to benefit both the UC Department of Ophthalmology and the Children’s Hospital Division of Pediatric Ophthalmology.
"Ira has made an indelible impact on every person who has ever met him and for that we can be happy,” was the sentiment conveyed by James Augsburger, MD, who served as chair of the department from 1999-2014.
In a touching recognition of a life’s work, Augsburger then expressed what most people in the room were thinking: "I’m reminded of the Frank Capra film "It’s a Wonderful Life,” and I just can’t imagine what it would have been like if there had never been an Ira in it.”