• Unsung Heroes: Paul Steinkuller, MD

    Dec. 10, 2020

    When Paul Steinkuller, MD, accepted a hospital post from the government of Kenya in 1980, he became the sole ophthalmologist in the Rift Valley area, serving a population of about one million people. He said he was “struck by seeing the end stages of various diseases I had only read about.”

    In addition to working in the hospital, he made medical safaris in the countryside, where he performed surgery, often in empty classrooms, illuminated by an automobile headlight powered by a car battery. Despite the rudimentary equipment, he said, “During my three years in Kenya, we did not have a single case of infection due to ocular surgery.”

    Many of the cataract patients he operated on had been blind for two or more years and required another person to lead and care for them. “When we restored sight to an adult after cataract surgery, we were also changing the lives of the family, because the caretaker was released to a normal life. And if it’s a small village, that changes the dynamics in the entire unit.”

    Dr. Steinkuller was also a key investigator in Kenya’s first national eye survey, which had a major impact on the international ophthalmic community by revealing the magnitude of eye disease, especially cataract, in sub-Saharan Africa. To help address that problem, he trained local clinical officers to carry out cataract surgery themselves.

    After Kenya, Dr. Steinkuller worked with an International Eye Foundation program in Malawi. Beyond providing general ophthalmic care, it focused on preventing childhood blindness by distributing high-dose vitamin A to ward off xerophthalmia.

    Larry Schwab, MD, cited another one of Dr. Steinkuller’s contributions to international ophthalmology: creating the first ophthalmic residency program in Madagascar. “My understanding is most of the ophthalmologists in the country of Madagascar have been trained in the Eye Residency Program that Paul started, which is an incredible accomplishment,” said Dr. Schwab.

    In another important first, Dr. Steinkuller introduced intraocular lens implantation to that country. Despite Dr. Steinkuller’s impact, he “intentionally does not seek the limelight. He is quite happy to not have any recognition for his incredible work that he’s done,” said Dr. Schwab.

    Baxter McLendon, MD, who worked with Dr. Steinkuller in Kenya, said that he has “unusual knack for teaching,” making use of humor and example in a nonthreatening style that is highly effective, both in training medical personnel overseas and in mentoring residents at Cullen Eye Institute, Baylor College of Medicine.

    Throughout his career, “Dr. Steinkuller has been an unsung hero because of the work he has done in reducing the prevalence of blindness and because of his humanity,” said Dr. McLendon. “He's been inspirational to students and patients alike—and to his colleagues, as well.”

    Ophthalmology has an abundance of unsung heroes who save sight, sometimes overcoming great challenges to deliver medical and surgical eye care. During 2020: Year of the Eye, the Academy is featuring stories about some of these heroes. Their colleagues nominated them for quietly serving the underserved, mentoring the next generation and sharing their skills with the world.