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Estelle Doheny’s loss of sight gave rise to a different kind of vision

Estelle Doheny

On her 69th birthday, Carrie Estelle Doheny, accustomed to tragedy, injured her left eye while kneeling to pray. Almost immediately, she lost vision in that eye and, soon after, vision in her right eye deteriorated from glaucoma.

At the turn of the century, as a young woman of modest means working as a telephone operator in Los Angeles, she met someone who would soon become one of the richest men in the world, Edward Laurence Doheny, the man who first discovered oil in Los Angeles. He had arrived from prospecting in the West eight years earlier, nearly broke. His first wife died and, the story goes, Doheny liked the sound and polite manner of the 25-year-old telephone operator’s voice. They married that same year, 1900, and she became an active partner in his business ventures. Self-educated, her passionate desire to learn caused her to collect books, gathering a world-class collection of rare books along the way.

Before Edward Doheny died, in 1935 at the age of 79, the couple established an unsurpassable record of philanthropy. They provided funding for the construction of the magnificent St. Vincent de Paul Church in the University Park area in 1925. The Edward L. Doheny, Jr. Memorial Library at USC was constructed in 1932 with a gift of $1.1 million.

The consequences of her devastating injury, on Aug. 2, 1944, and the glaucoma that cost the sight in her other eye, led her to learn all she could about vision – and what she learned didn’t please her. Her personal ophthalmologist, Dr. A. Ray Irvine Sr., informed her that eye research in general was in its infancy, and in Los Angeles, research and clinical facilities were in short supply. In particular, glaucoma could not be cured. Mrs. Doheny resolved to do something about it.

On Aug. 1, 1947, the Estelle Doheny Eye Foundation was created with a $227,000 grant from Mrs. Doheny. Its staff of 3 worked in two small rooms at St. Vincent Hospital. Under her visionary leadership, the Foundation included a pathology laboratory, where tissues could be studied to identify eye disease, an eye bank – one of the nation’s first – and equipment for eye photography. The Foundation offered its services free to area ophthalmologists.

Following her death in 1958, the Foundation, whose resources had swelled due to Mrs. Doheny’s leadership, initiated an intensive study of its future directions. The trustees determined to emphasize basic vision research while continuing to provide essential services. And, they decided to affiliate with the USC School of Medicine.

In 1970, the Foundation broke ground on what is now the Health Sciences Campus. Stephen J. Ryan, a faculty member and former Chief Resident at Johns Hopkins University, was recruited in 1974 to be USC’s first chair of ophthalmology.

The eye facilities were moved from St. Vincent to the Health Sciences Campus in 1975 and that same year, Ryan recruited his colleague Ronald Smith from Hopkins to join him here.

The two became the principal medical architects of what is now the Doheny Eye Institute.

Ryan was appointed medical director of Doheny in 1977 and president in 1985. By now, 20 years after the move, the legacy of Carrie Estelle Doheny has been firmly established. But Ryan believes her legacy transcends the financial gifts.

“She was wise enough to see that the elements of research, education and clinical care needed to be nurtured,” he said. “We have done that and continue to be guided by her vision for the Institute.”

Estelle Doheny’s loss of sight gave rise to a different kind of vision

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