ARVO was started in 1921 as the Association for Research in Ophthalmology (ARO) by a New York ophthalmologist named Conrad Berens, MD. It was modeled after the American Neurological Association, a society founded in 1874.
The original association was a small, rather insular group of prominent ophthalmologists at a time when ophthalmology was a descriptive field “rich in art but somewhat short on science.” There was an awareness that ophthalmology needed scientific underpinnings.
A few young ophthalmologists were working on scientific aspects of the specialty, following in the footsteps of Alvar Gullstrand and Jules Gonin. These included Drs. Frederick Herman Verhoeff, Francis Heed Adler, Sir Stewart Duke-Elder, and others, but the specialty was dominated by clinicians.
ARO was founded to exchange ideas relevant to the causes and treatment of eye diseases. Its members were a “Who’s Who” of the leaders in early 20th-century American ophthalmology: Edward Jackson, Arnold Knapp, William Holland Wilmer, George de Schweinitz, Lucien Howe, William Benedict, Arthur Bedell and Walter Lancaster were prominent among them. Their yearly meetings were held either in association with the American Medical Association Section of Ophthalmology or the American Ophthalmological Society annual meetings. The topic for each meeting was assigned and the presenters chosen by the President. A select group designated as the “commission” asked questions of the speakers.
In 1947, Derrick Vail, recalling these early meetings wrote: “… the commission composed of nice old boys sat in rather embarrassed dignity at a long table in front of the meeting and looked as if they were suffering acutely – and they were, too.”
A single topic assigned for the meeting (e.g., uveitis, glaucoma, cataract, etc.) gradually gave way to different individual presentations on various topics of practical and general interest, and the proceedings were recorded in the American Journal of Ophthalmology. Membership was small, and by 1945 attendance at meetings reached about 100.
The major achievement of the society was that it had remained intact and viable, despite the Depression, the World War II and the fact that very little real vision research was being done. The late 1940s and the decade of the ’50s saw leadership and influence in the society passing from the senior charter members to the younger members interested in ophthalmic research who were starting to assert themselves.
Jonas Friedenwald, the first Proctor medal awardee in 1949, captured the spirit of the then-younger members – David Cogan, Morton Grant, Bernard Becker and others – when he declared in the first Proctor lecture, “Clinical investigation is not to be disparaged. It is, on the contrary, to be greatly admired, but its gleanings in the well-harvested field are few and far between. By contrast the field of basic science is rich and ripe for the harvest … Basic research is easy, joyous and exciting. One cannot take a step in thought without discovering something new and illuminating.”
During the 1950s, the association traditionally had been holding a national meeting in June or July in conjunction with the AMA Section of Ophthalmology. But in 1959, it initiated a second mid-winter national meeting. In addition to the national organization, the association had also begun to have regional sections and meetings. These regional sections were semi-autonomous and, in some ways, competed with the national organization, leading to confusion.
By the end of the 1950s, basic scientists were beginning to discover ophthalmology. The majority of nonclinical papers presented at the ARO meeting dealt with basic laboratory studies, particularly biochemistry and physiology, but it was being done within an organization with an antiquated structure and governed in an undemocratic manner.
By the 1960s, the association was well-established with a membership close to 1,500, most of whom were ophthalmologists in clinical practice. Although its programs were increasingly scientific, it had little attraction for basic scientists and lacked a strong sense of purpose. The organization took a major step in 1962 toward declaring its commitment to research with the inception of its journal originally entitled Investigative Ophthalmology. Independently and simultaneously, two other journals were founded: Experimental Eye Research and Vision Research, further evidence that visual science was a field of growing interest to basic scientists.
South Florida was the catalyst which crystallized the various meetings into a single spring meeting. A 1967 meeting in Clearwater, Fla. and a 1968 meeting in Tampa, Fla. were described as delightful successes. The 1968 meeting included a further reform: In place of a single general session held in a large meeting room, the concept of concurrent separate sessions for the various specialty groups was attempted.
Dr. Paul Henkind attended the Visual Electrophysiology session and recalled that it was “held in a motel bedroom. The room was packed with perhaps a dozen members, and even the bathroom had to be used as a sitting area.” This format was so successful that specific research section meetings progressively increased, and the general sessions correspondingly reduced.
Paul Henkind, MD (1932-1986)
The group’s business meeting in 1968 was of monumental importance in advancing the association to the organization we know today. Separate scientific sections were formally established, the actions of the governing body – the trustees – required membership approval, the society was renamed the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO), and the journal amended to Investigative Ophthalmology and Vision Science. And so, 42 years after its founding, the growing number of visual scientists, now totaling about 300 members, became the dominant force.
The association as we know it today had evolved by the early 1970s. The subsequent history of the organization is well known and accessible. It has become the largest and most respected eye and vision research organization in the world. Its members include 12,000 researchers from over 75 countries, and they have been the major source of outstanding contributions to ophthalmology and vision research over the past 50 years.
Authors’ note: This article about the history of the organization is drawn in part from unpublished and unreferenced notes by Dr. Henkind, which were discovered after he passed away in 1986. Dr. Henkind was a member of the original Association for Research in Ophthalmology (subsequently ARVO) from the 1950s until his death. He served on the editorial board of Investigative Ophthalmology and was secretary-treasurer from 1977-1981.