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NEI Pays Tribute to Founding Father Jules Stein

February 24, 2014
Dr. Jules Stein

Dr. Jules Stein

The National Eye Institute paid tribute to the late Dr. Jules Stein on Jan. 7, 2014. After making millions in show business, Stein spearheaded a campaign that convinced Congress to establish NEI in 1968.

Born in 1896, Stein paid his way through medical school at Rush Medical College by arranging musical acts at local Chicago nightclubs. He began private practice as an ophthalmologist in 1921, but his work booking musical acts continued to grow. Broadcast radio was emerging at the time, ushering in a new era of entertainment. In 1924, he established the Music Corporation of America (MCA) and decided to stop practicing medicine. By the 1950s, Stein had grown MCA into a global media empire that comprised not only music but also film and television.

From left: Ambassador William vanden Heuvel,
Ms. Katrina vanden Heuvel, Dr. Brian Hofland, and Dr. Paul Sieving.

But as his business grew, Stein never lost his passion for vision science. In 1960, he founded the nonprofit organization Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB), and began using his personal wealth and business acumen to advocate for increased federal support for vision research. At the Jan. 7 event, RPB donated a bronze bust of Stein to NEI, which will be housed in the NEI director’s office. The bust was created by renowned Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.

“As you look back through the history of health advocacy and NIH, Dr. Stein was a member of an august group,” said NIH deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak at the event. He compared Stein to other influential supporters of biomedical research, including Mary Woodward Lasker, Edwin Whitehead, and Victor McKusick—founders of the Lasker Foundation, the Whitehead Institute, and the Genetic Alliance, respectively.

Representing RPB at the event were its president, Dr. Brian Hofland; RPB board member Katrina vanden Heuvel, who is Dr. Stein’s granddaughter and editor and publisher of The Nation; and her father Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, who is also an RPB board member.

“My grandfather believed that blindness was most effectively fought at the points of prevention and treatment,” said Ms. vanden Heuvel. “At the time RPB was founded, there were several hundred organizations nationwide spending billions to provide services to the blind and visually impaired, but there wasn’t a single organization dedicated to eradicating the diseases that caused blindness.”

Ms. Katrina vanden Heuvel

“The lack of a far-reaching, concerted attack on the causes of blinding diseases amounts to a national disgrace,” Stein testified to Congress in 1967. “Until we put leadership and direction of eye research in the hands of those who best understand ophthalmic problems, we will witness the continuous, steady rise in the incidence of blindness in this nation and throughout the world.” Both the Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson found Stein’s stirring argument persuasive and in August 1968 established the NEI.

NEI director Dr. Paul Sieving, who unveiled the sculpture with Ms. vanden Heuvel, spoke of the stunning pace of discovery over the past decade and NEI’s current campaign to catalyze innovation in vision research through the NEI Audacious Goals Initiative. “We have great opportunities in front of us—opportunities that I think Jules Stein would appreciate as an entrepreneur.”