Robert Burton Nussenblatt, MD, MPH, who for many years was a member of the Journal ‘s Editorial Board, passed away on April 17, 2016, after a brief illness. He was a preeminent ophthalmologist, laboratory and clinical investigator, teacher, and mentor, and he will be missed greatly by his family, friends, and colleagues around the world.
Dr Nussenblatt received his medical degree from the State University of New York, Downstate College of Medicine (1972) and later received a Master of Public Health degree from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University (2007). After completing residency training in ophthalmology at New York University (1977), he undertook training in ocular immunology at the National Eye Institute (NEI), where he stayed for the rest of his career. He held numerous leadership positions at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the years, most recently Head of the NEI Laboratory of Immunology (since 1986) and Associate Director (Clinical Director) of the NIH Center for Human Immunology, which he helped to establish in 2010. He received numerous awards, including the Proctor Award (1991) from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO); the Gold Medal, for excellence in ocular inflammatory disease (2004), from the International Uveitis Study Group (IUSG); the Life Achievement Award (2011) from the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO); the Kupfer Award (2012), for major scientific achievements and contributions to the care of patients with ocular inflammatory disease worldwide, from the NEI; and NIH Director’s Award (2013) for exceptional dedication, service, and visionary leadership during his 9-year tenure as Acting Scientific Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. He was proud of 2 honorary degrees, one from Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, Israel, and one from the University of Paris. Shortly before his illness, Dr Nussenblatt was promoted by the Director of the NIH to the position of NIH Distinguished Investigator, a tremendous honor that has been awarded to only a small number of individuals.
Dr Nussenblatt was arguably the most important figure in the fields of uveitis and ocular immunology worldwide. He was an author on more than 600 scientific articles, and conducted some of the first randomized clinical trials involving patients with uveitis. Throughout his career, Dr Nussenblatt was a strong advocate for the use of immunosuppressive drugs to treat inflammatory eye diease. One of his major contributions in this area was to show that cyclosporine could be used successfully to treat noninfectious uveitis.
He was passionate about translational research. Working with noted laboratory immunologists at the NEI, including Rachel R. Caspi, PhD, Chi-Chao Chan, MD, and Igal B. Gery, PhD, he generated knowledge from basic research that could be used to develop and refine clinical therapies. They pursued a broad range of topics, including autoimmunity, retinal antigens, and oral tolerance. Dr Gery commented: “Bob was an ideal colleague and a close friend for the 39 years we were together at the NEI. He always had interesting new ideas and got excited about data. Bob was one of the most optimistic persons I have ever known. He was always ‘there,’ to share good and not-so-good personal news. Bob was a real Renaissance man who could talk on almost any topic. He opened new pages in research on uveitis, in particular by developing animal models, and by introducing new compounds for treatment of disease.” More recently, he extended his investigations of ocular immunology to the study of age-related macular degeneration. He also had a true passion for clinical studies, and was meticulous in his research methods. He developed a widely used grading scale for vitreous inflammatory reactions and played an integral role in the Standardization of Uveitis Nomenclature (SUN) project.
Dr Nussenblatt served the scientific community in many capacities. He recognized the importance of a team approach to science and pursued it on an international scale. He was instrumental in organizing, and he continued to lead, the Universities and National Institutes Transatlantic Eye (UNITE) Consortium for Human Ocular Immunology, which partners the NEI with investigators in the United Kingdom, China, and Hong Kong. He served as president of the following organizations: American Uveitis Society (1993-95), ARVO (1998-99), IUSG (2005-08), and the Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies (FOCIS, 2013-15). Janet L. Davis, MD, Professor of Ophthalmology at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, Miami, Florida, and one of Dr Nussenblatt’s former Clinical Fellows, is the current president of the IUSG. She said, “Bob was a wonderful mentor to so many people. He was also mentored by wonderful people, especially in the IUSG, which he joined at an early point in his career. His multilingualism was ideal for the IUSG, and he was very close with one of the principal leaders, Etienne Bloch-Michel, MD [Paris, France], with whom he shared a love of both immunological eye disease and the French language.” He had been a member of the Scientific Advisory Panel for Research to Prevent Blindness, Inc since 1997, and he was a member of the Policy and Data Monitoring Board (PDMB) for the NIH-supported Studies of the Ocular Complications of AIDS (SOCA) for its entire 27 years. According to Douglas A. Jabs, Professor of Ophthalmology and Medicine, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Chairman of SOCA, “Bob was a dedicated member of the PDMB, who was adept at working with the other members to arrive at the right decision. His presence will be missed by the entire ophthalmic community.”
Education was an additional passion. He trained dozens of Clinical Fellows, many of whom are now leaders in the uveitis community around the world. Laure Caspers, one of Dr Nussenblatt’s early fellows, and currently Professor of Ocular Immuno-allergology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, remembers that “his passion for science was truly infectious, as he nurtured and inspired a generation of scientists who have continued to meet regularly at conferences around the world, sharing research and teaching the next generation. His legacy is not limited to his own scientific work, but continues to expand with the big family of uveitis scientists and clinicians he created. His legacy is one that will impact science for decades to come.”
He gave numerous named lectures throughout the world, and his textbook Uveitis: Fundamentals and Clinical Practice , now in its 4th edition, is the standard in the field. His co-author, Scott M. Whitcup, MD, a former colleague at the NEI and currently Chief Executive Officer of Akrivista and Whitecap Biosciences, stated, “Over the years I collaborated with Bob on numerous research projects, but most enjoyed working on our book together. His knowledge and expertise extended far beyond immunology and uveitis, and this made him a better physician, researcher, and author. I fondly remember having coffee with him many times in the lobby of the NIH Clinical Center, where we would discuss everything from T cells to the latest articles in the New Yorker . I will miss Bob immensely, but his voice and advice will be with me always.” Dr. Nussenblatt remained lifelong friends with most of his trainees. Manabu Mochizuki, MD, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Science, Tokyo Medical and Dental University, expressed his feelings by stating, “I mourn the sudden departure of Dr Robert B. Nussenblatt and convey my sincere gratitude for his long-term friendship and support of me and my family. I first met Bob in 1981 when I started my research career in ocular immunology at the NEI through a US–Japan exchange program. Bob was a good friend to all, and an excellent mentor. He was enthusiastic in science, but also extended a gentle and warm heart to all of us. My family has had many wonderful times with Bob’s family through the years.”
Dr Nussenblatt was remarkable for his personal qualities. During numerous tributes since his passing, the same words have been heard repeatedly about him: humble, patient, considerate, kind, generous, welcoming, collegial. He was inclusive, and always sensitive to the feelings of others, young and old. He was a master at establishing collaborations and achieving consensus. He offered support, encouragement, and opportunities to young investigators. People turned to him when dealing with complex ethical issues related to clinical investigation.
Above all, he was devoted to his family. He is survived by his wife, Rosine; their children, Veronique, Valerie, and Eric; and 3 grandchildren. Veronique R. Nussenblatt, MD, shared these comments, “My father was passionate about his work and regularly worked at home during evenings and the weekend, but I never felt that he was absent. He had the incredible ability to focus entirely on his family and never appear distracted by his work, despite all of his professional responsibilities. He was very involved in all aspects of his children’s lives, as we were growing up and as adults. My parents were like two peas in a pod and embraced each other’s interests.” Bob and Rosine Nussenblatt were famous for opening their home to colleagues from work and to his trainees, making them all feel like members of the family. And he had a wonderful sense of humor. He was always quick with a kind word or a wry comment about the amusing aspects of everyday life.
Beyond science, Dr Nussenblatt was well versed in culture and current events. He was fluent in several languages and would entertain long conversations on topics such as philosophy and world affairs. He was always the optimist. His rounds were a combination of great insight into disease and quizzes on geography, history, or religious philosophy. Daniel F. Martin, MD, a former Clinical Fellow and current Chairman of the Cleveland Clinic Cole Eye Institute, recalls, “Bob had many great attributes: caring physician, gifted researcher, and inspiring educator. But most of all, Bob was a wonderful human being. Bob always saw the best in people and delighted in diversity of culture and thought. He had an international view of the world, and as a result had a wonderful group of colleagues and friends across the globe.”
In conclusion, Dr Nussenblatt led an admirable and productive life. Not only was he responsible for advancing uveitis and ocular immunology as a distinct discipline in ophthalmology, but he was one of the most honorable persons one could ever meet. His integrity and the trust that everyone placed in him were nonpareil. He touched many lives around the world through his science, his leadership, and his humanity. His personal warmth and his professional legacy will live on in the people whose lives he touched.