Remembering Roger Steinert
Gavin Herbert Eye Institute founder leaves legacy of innovation, improved eye care
June 07, 2017
UC Irvine Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute Director Roger Steinert, MD, photographed at the entrance of the eye institute.
As a young ophthalmologist in the 1980s, Dr. Roger Steinert became convinced that lasers then being developed to cut and reshape eye tissue could revolutionize vision surgery. However, nobody had systematically explored how to use them safely or advance their potential. Steinert made it his mission to unlock the power of those lasers.
Over nearly four decades, he paved the way for their use in ophthalmology and pioneered new laser surgery techniques to stave off blindness and strengthen eyesight. His early work while on the faculty at Harvard Medical School helped lay the foundation for LASIK refractive surgery.
Later, as chair of the UC Irvine School of Medicine's Department of Ophthalmology and founding director of its Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, he helped improve corneal transplantation by replacing the existing handheld surgical blade-based approach with the Intralase® femtosecond laser.
Steinert, 66, died Tuesday evening, after a long battle with brain cancer. He was surrounded by his wife, April, and his family at their home in Colorado.
"Dr. Steinert was a dedicated and beloved member of our campus community who fervently advocated for the establishment and success of the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute,” said UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman. "His bold vision, inspiring research and devotion to his colleagues, students and patients made him one of the most accomplished, celebrated and well-liked experts of his time."
Born in Lawrence, Mass., Steinert spent more than 20 years on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, where he had earned his medical degree. He completed his residency at Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary and launched a career in which he became one of the world’s foremost experts in the fields of cataract surgery, corneal transplantation and laser refractive vision correction.
"Dr. Steinert was truly a giant in the world of ophthalmology," said Howard J. Federoff, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor of health affairs and CEO of UC Irvine Health. "His presence elevated those of us privileged to be his colleagues and his clinical and research achievements immeasurably improved the lives of millions of people. Roger will be missed."
Steinert’s clinical and research breakthroughs stretch back to the early days of laser refractive surgery. His lab group was the second in the world to study excimer laser applications for refractive surgery and LASIK, and he was among the first group of surgeons to conduct U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) trials of phototherapeutic and photorefractive keratectomy in the 1980s. Steinert was a presenter to the FDA ophthalmic devices panel, which led to the 1993 approval of phototherapeutic keratectomy and the 1995 approval of photorefractive keratectomy.
In 2004, Steinert moved to UC Irvine, where he became the Irving H. Leopold Professor and Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology, a professor of biomedical engineering and founding director of the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute. He also served as interim dean of the School of Medicine in 2014.
He relocated to Orange County in part because of the historically strong ties between UC Irvine researchers and the area’s thriving eye-care industry. That cooperation has helped translate discoveries made in the lab into sight-saving medical devices and therapies.
"Ophthalmology and the world lost a great man and a great doctor this week," said James V. Mazzo, global president of ophthalmic devices for Carl Zeiss Meditec and a UCI Foundation trustee. "Roger Steinert was one of the greatest leaders and pioneers in ophthalmology. His work was transformational, improving the vision — and lives — of millions around the world."
Steinert was also an extraordinary academic leader.
"Under Dr. Steinert’s leadership, the Department of Ophthalmology became home to some of the nation’s top clinicians and researchers in retinal disease, glaucoma, corneal disease, macular degeneration and refractive surgery," said Michael J. Stamos, M.D., interim dean of the School of Medicine.
Eye care industry leaders agreed.
"Roger Steinert has for decades been recognized as one of the key opinion leaders in cataract and refractive surgery in the world," said David Pyott, former Allergan chairman and CEO. "After his appointment as director of the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, he steadily built the reputation and capacity of Irvine as one of the premier eye centers in the U.S."
As founding director of the eye institute, Steinert led the bricks-and-mortar development of a state-of the-art home for Orange County’s only academic vision health center, a place where pioneering research continues to yield sight-saving treatment.
Steinert received numerous awards from the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Society of Cataract & Refractive Surgery, including the Life Achievement Honor Award and Entrepreneurship Lifetime Innovator Award. He was also honored for advancing eye care with the Presidential Recognition Award; the prestigious Jose Barraquer Award from the International Society of Refractive Surgeons; the Visionary Award from the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and the Distinguished Clinical Achievement Award from Harvard Medical School. The New England Ophthalmologic Society presented him with the Distinguished Achievement Award, and the Hawaiian Eye Foundation recently honored him with the Phillip M. Corby, M.D. Memorial Award. In addition, the Cornea Society gave him the Claes Dohlman Award for Teaching Excellence.
Steinert consistently appeared in both the America’s Top Doctors and Best Doctors in America lists for his expertise in cataract, cornea and refractive surgery. He served as president of the American Society of Cataract & Refractive Surgery and wrote numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters and textbooks. In 2016, he was honored with an endowed chair at UC Irvine.
"Roger was more than the sum of his accomplishments and awards," said Sumit "Sam" Garg, M.D., current medical director of the eye institute and vice chair of clinical ophthalmology in the Department of Ophthalmology. "For a generation of ophthalmologists, including me, he was a leader, teacher, mentor, friend and colleague whose daily commitment to excellence provided inspiration and guidance."
Steinert’s legacy will live on for future generations through the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, which exists because of his vision and persistence, Garg noted.
After Steinert was diagnosed with glioblastoma more than two-and-a-half years ago, he concluded his term as interim dean of the School of Medicine and remained involved in managing the department and the eye institute he worked so hard to build. During his battle with cancer, he entrusted his care to UC Irvine Health specialists and it was typical of his gracious nature and desire to teach that he sought to share his experience with others through the UC Irvine Health Live Well magazine, Garg said.
A quote Steinert gave in a 2011 article about his groundbreaking blade-less approach to corneal transplantation sums up his lifelong commitment: "What could be better in life than helping to preserve and restore vision?"