News

September 25, 2008

Sight & Insight

Inventor and ophthalmologist Richard Koplin ’64 has improved lives of millions worldwide

Through his vision as an inventor and as one of the world’s foremost ophthalmologists, Richard Koplin ’64 has brought sight to the blind and improved the lives of millions worldwide.

LASIK corrective eye surgery owes much to Koplin, who, along with his partner in Gersten Koplin Enterprises LLC, Martin Gersten, invented the corneal modeling technology that enables lasers to precisely sculpt the eye’s surface. Koplin uses what he develops, too, having performed thousands of refractive eye surgeries.

As unlikely as it sounds, Albert Einstein, shoes made from surgical gloves, and a stream of comatose minnows lie scattershot along Koplin’s storied career path.

“My grandfather, Nathaniel Hawthorne Koplin, was Einstein’s ophthalmologist,” Koplin says. When his father, A.H. Koplin ’33, an Army eye doctor, died unexpectedly, Koplin looked to the family patriarch for guidance. “He was a powerful force, along with my father’s ghost,” he says. “It was a logical choice for me to test the waters.”

The track came before the waters, though. As a record-breaking high school sprinter looking to find another gear, Koplin envisioned an ultralight running shoe—years before a waffle iron spawned Nike.

“Latex gloves had just come out,” he recalls. “I got a local guy in Easton to make plastic plates that I screwed some cleats into, then I wrapped these rubber glove-like devices around them in a way that wrapped my foot.” As a member of Lafayette’s track team, he gave his innovative shoes their trial run. “I was sure I was going to be the inventor of a great track shoe that would take the world by storm.” Only one problem: “I’d use the shoes once and the sheer force of the shoes moving on the track tore them apart.”

Failure is no enemy, though. “I’m a risk taker,” he says. “I’m not saying failure doesn’t sting. I just look at it as part of the job. You have to be prepared to fail more than you succeed.”

Success at Lafayette came in the unlikely form of a fish parasite.

Searching for ways to gather fish for a study, the biology major recalled “a newspaper article about a guy who electrocuted himself with a homemade electric seine. It gave me a great idea and we came up with a miniature version.” Tested in Bushkill Creek, the device worked well—though too well on sensitive rainbow trout, which more often wound up dead than stunned. Of course, the local game commissioner found out, so Koplin and some fraternity brothers demonstrated the charged paddles.

“After 15 minutes, everyone’s satisfied and the game commissioner gave me an OK,” Koplin says. “Then I notice something coming up from the depths: a rainbow trout. Everyone’s saying I can come out, but I’m using my foot to create an eddy to swirl the trout back down. I played that game for ten minutes until everyone left.”

So scientific progress prevailed and Koplin and Bernard Fried, now Kreider Professor Emeritus of Biology, discovered a new fish parasite as part of that study, eventually publishing two papers together.

While studying at New York Medical College, Koplin was the first physician to demonstrate the use of pituitary replacement hormonal therapy in postpartum pituitary necrosis, a disorder of pregnancy. Later, a collaboration resulted in an ultrasound scan designed to provide cataract surgeons with efficient and accurate lens calculations. The instrument was sold with the first personal computer developed in the United States. As a result of his early achievements, Koplin was chosen to be an FDA monitor for the development of a procedure for transplanting a cornea.

He has gone on to design several computer-driven optical diagnostic ultrasound tools and a surgical adhesive for cataract surgery. He also is developing an open source software product that would help salvage data after computer crashes.

In his role as president of Ophthalmic Consultants, a group of physicians centered in the historic New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, Koplin made another discovery, this one of Lafayette’s past: David McDonogh 1844, a slave at the time of his studies, went on to practice medicine in Koplin’s building. Koplin and his daughter, Russell, will share their research on the College’s first black graduate in a presentation preceding the dedication of a sculpture in his honor Saturday, Sept. 27. Their studies may also form the basis for a made-for-TV movie on McDonogh’s life.

Koplin and his wife of 43 years, Nedra, enjoy their grandkids (courtesy of son Kevin ’91 and his wife, Danielle). And despite the workload provided by GKE, Ophthalmic Consultants, running Ophthalmic Surgical Group (as president and owner of several eye surgery centers), and serving as a member of the New York State Board of Professional Medical Conduct, Koplin still finds time to enjoy running in Central Park and volunteering time to volunteer with the Achilles International, which aids disabled athletes.

Koplin’s work with Achilles gained notice with Pyambuugiin Tuul, a Mongolian marathoner who had lost his vision in an industrial accident. After Tuul ran the New York Marathon with the help of Achilles, Koplin and partner John Seedor restored vision in the athlete’s salvageable eye through a corneal transplant. As a result, “Tuul ran in the Barcelona Olympics as a sighted athlete,” notes Koplin, a dedicated runner himself.

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