The American Academy of Ophthalmology takes special pride in honoring Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS, as recipient of the Laureate Recognition Award at its 115th Annual Meeting.
A child of the World War II generation, Dr. Sommer received his medical degree in 1967 from Harvard Medical School. Though he was interested in ophthalmology from early on, a trip to Bangladesh in the late 1960s ignited a companion interest in epidemiology. Upon his return to the United States, he delayed his ophthalmology fellowship to pursue a master of health science in epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. He then continued on at Johns Hopkins to complete his ophthalmology residency and fellowship.
Eager to return overseas, Dr. Sommer headed back to Asia in 1976, for a trip to Indonesia where he initiated a study of xerophthalmia in children. Through a series of complex intervention trials (1976-1980), he and his research team discovered that vitamin A deficiency was far more common than previously recognized, and that even a mild deficiency dramatically increased childhood mortality rates. Parallel studies Dr. Sommer organized with colleagues in Africa showed that most cases of measles-associated pediatric blindness were also related to low vitamin A levels. Dr. Sommer showed that the debilitating consequences of vitamin A deficiency could be effectively, quickly, and cheaply treated with oral high-dose vitamin A supplementation, resulting in what the World Bank's World Development Report declared one of the most cost-effective of all health interventions. More than 400 million vitamin A supplements are now distributed annually to children around the world, preventing blindness and saving literally thousands of lives each year.
In addition to his pioneering work in global health, Dr. Sommer has had a long history of leadership and involvement with the Academy and organizations worldwide. He served as the inaugural chair of the Public Health and Quality of Care Committees and led the development of the Academy's pioneering series of clinical guidelines, the Preferred Practice Patterns®. He now serves on the advisory board of the H. Dunbar Hoskins Jr., M.D. Center for Quality Eye Care. He is a past president of the Association of Schools of Public Health, chairs the Board of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, holds the 19th Chair of the Academia Ophthalmolgica Internationalis and has served as chair of scientific and advisory committees for numerous organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Economic Forum. He also serves as a corporate director of Becton Dickinson and T. Rowe Price.
He has authored more than 300 scientific publications and five books and has given more than 30 named lectures, including the prestigious Jackson Memorial Lecture. In 1997, Dr. Sommer became only the second ophthalmologist to receive the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Research, widely considered the American equivalent of the Nobel prize. Throughout his career, Dr. Sommer has received numerous awards for his research work, including the Helen Keller Foundation Prize for Vision Research, Lucien Howe Medal of the American Ophthalmological Society, and the Duke Elder International Gold Medal for Contributions to Ophthalmology.
Currently, Dr. Sommer is an inaugural Gilman Scholar and distinguished service professor at Johns Hopkins, where he is also dean emeritus of the Bloomberg School of Public Health and a professor of ophthalmology at the Wilmer Institute. He resides in Baltimore with his wife Jill and has two children. His current research interests include outcomes assessment; clinical guidelines; cost containment, the screening, diagnosis and management of glaucoma and other blindness prevention strategies.
Dr. Sommer is honored at this 2011 Annual Meeting for his remarkable career marked by lasting contributions to ophthalmology, epidemiology and public health worldwide. It is with great pleasure that the Academy welcomes Dr. Alfred Sommer as the 2011 Academy Laureate.