• Press Release

New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai Celebrates 200th Anniversary and Honors its Pioneering Black Physician

Hosts Dedication for a Former Slave Who Became Country’s First African American Eye and Ear Specialist

  • New York, NY
  • (August 17, 2020)

New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai (NYEE) is marking 200 years of excellence in providing innovative care for patients with diseases of the eyes, ears, nose, and throat. The celebration begins with a ceremony to honor one of its own—David Kearny McDonogh, who was formerly enslaved and fought racial injustice in the 1800s to become the country’s first Black ophthalmology and otolaryngology specialist. Dr. McDonogh practiced at NYEE for more than a decade, paving the way for racial equity at the hospital, and became an activist in the abolitionist movement and a champion of workers’ rights, equality, and providing health care for all. 

NYEE held a socially distant dedication ceremony on Thursday, August 13, for Dr. McDonogh, unveiling a painting of him on permanent display in the new waiting room to honor his legacy and contributions to the hospital. Daniel Laroche, MD, and his wife Marjorie commissioned and donated the artwork, created by artist Leroy Campbell.

“Dr. David Kearny McDonogh is an American hero who devoted his life to academic and medical excellence and helped to integrate colleges, medical schools, and health care and provide health care to all. This is an important legacy to help make the United States a more just and perfect union and an important part of American history,” explained Dr. Laroche, who is Assistant Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a cataract and glaucoma surgeon at NYEE.

Dr. McDonogh was born enslaved in 1821 in New Orleans, and his owner, impressed with his intelligence and fortitude, sent him north to attend college. Dr. McDonogh went on to fight the racial prejudices of his time to accomplish his goal of practicing medicine. After becoming the first Black person to graduate from a college in Pennsylvania—finishing third in his class at Lafayette College, where he was forced to eat and study separately from the other students—Dr. McDonogh was rejected because of his race from every medical school he applied to. John Kearny Rodgers, a founder of NYEE whom Dr. McDonogh met in college, became a mentor and helped him unofficially attend classes at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (now part of Columbia University), but in 1847, when he would have graduated, the school refused to award him his medical degree. Dr. Rodgers continued to support him and Dr. McDonogh served on NYEE’s staff as a specialist for 11 years, focusing mostly on treating eye diseases. When Dr. Rodgers died in 1850, Dr. McDonogh took “Kearny” as his middle name to honor the man who helped him achieve success despite racial barriers. In 2018, Richard Koplin, MD, a cornea surgeon at NYEE, led a vigorous and successful campaign to have Dr. McDonogh’s medical diploma injustice rectified, and Dr. McDonogh’s great-great-granddaughter accepted the posthumous degree on his behalf.

“It is easy to simply say that Dr. David McDonogh overcame the racial prejudices of his time. Although true, this not does justice to his accomplishments. Dr. McDonogh represents a sincere example to men and woman of color who aspire—and deserve—to become accomplished citizens of the American experiment,” says Dr. Koplin, Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Founded by Dr. Rodgers and Edward Delafield, NYEE opened its doors on August 14, 1820, becoming the first specialty hospital in North America. A charitable institution dedicated to serving vulnerable populations who were unable to afford medical treatment, NYEE quickly established a legacy of innovation in the delivery of care, starting that same year with the first successful cataract surgeries in the United States, which restored sight to three pediatric patients. Other historic milestones include:

  • Establishing the first Otology Service in New York City and the United States in 1824.
  • Making the first photograph of the retina of a living creature, a rabbit, laying the foundation for modern clinical retinal imaging.
  • Establishing the first School of Orthoptics in the United States in 1935 and subsequently developing the first professional guidelines for orthoptic technicians and hosting the first national certifying examination in 1939.
  • Establishing New York City’s first Retina Service, in 1957.
  • Establishing the Department of Pleoptics, the first of its kind in the United States and the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, in 1959.
  • Pioneering the use of hematoporphyrin derivatives for diagnosis and photodynamic therapy of choroidal melanoma in 1974.
  • Inventing corneal topography and building the first corneal mapper in 1982.
  • Launching New York City’s first eye trauma center in 1984.
  • Pioneering endoscopic sinus surgery in 1989.
  • Developing the first commercial trans-scleral laser retinopexy program for repairing retinal tears and detachments in 1992.
  • Discovering, in 2009, that radiation-related maculopathy and optic neuropathy after eye cancer are minimized with periodic treatment with vascular endothelial growth-factor inhibitors.
  • Discovering, in 2010, that acupuncture can be used as a therapeutic remedy for older children with anisometropic amblyopia, or “lazy eye,” instead of eye patches.
  • Performing the first series of autologous temporalis fascia transplants to the vocal fold in the United States, which restored patients’ voices, in 2014.
  • Introducing, in 2015, adaptive optics scanning technology paired with fluorescein angiography for quantitative analysis of retinal vasculature. This high-resolution imaging provides unprecedented visualization of the retina on a cellular level, allowing scientists and clinicians to better understand the retinas function and detect imperfections.

“From its humble beginnings as a small clinic at 45 Chatham Square, NYEE has grown into a network of satellite practices serving the New York metropolitan area, and has become a model for delivering care to patients with diseases of the eyes, ears, nose, and throat,” said James C. Tsai, MD, MBA, President of NYEE. “We are at the forefront of innovative surgical specialty services and we are a clinical site for breakthrough translational research, pioneering many novel diagnostic and surgical techniques.”

Recent innovations in research and therapeutic approaches include:

  • A first-of its-kind study in which NYEE retina specialists used state-of-the-art imaging technology to demonstrate that a self-prescribed high dose of over-the-counter niacin—also known as vitamin B3—can produce a rare toxic reaction called niacin-induced cystoid maculopathy, a form of retinal swelling that results in vision loss. The experts found that discontinuing the vitamin, which is often used to lower hyperlipidemia and cholesterol, led to reversal of the condition.
  • The introduction of the first robotic interventional system for ocular surgery in the United States through a collaboration with the Dutch developer of the Preceyes Surgical System, ushering in a new era of unlimited potential in precision medicine.
  • A first-of-its-kind study in which NYEE researchers showed that color vision problems caused by retinal damage on a cellular level can result from a high dose of sildenafil citrate, an ingredient in some erectile-dysfunction medications.  The results demonstrate that excessive use of the drug could lead to long-term vision problems, including possible irreversible damage. 
  • The successful restoration of vision in mice by a Mount Sinai/NYEE Eye and Vision Research Institute’s researcher through activating retinal stem cells, something that had never been done before. The study opened a pathway toward self-repair treatment for patients with retinal degenerative diseases, which currently have no cure.
  • The development of the initial standardized data for OCT angiography based on earlier advancements in adaptive optics technology. This facilitates recognition of abnormal patterns of retinal blood flow and leads to early detection of eye disorders.
  • A first-of-its-kind study in which NYEE researchers used state-of-the-art imaging technology to examine the degree of eye damage caused by a solar eclipse at a cellular level. The results could lead to a better understanding of solar retinopathy and, potentially, the development of therapeutic options, which currently are not available.

“Celebrating this legacy is a reminder and a motivator for us to continue to advance the world-class instruction we deliver, the research we conduct, and the quality of care we provide in our third century so that we remain true to the mission and vision of our founders,” Dr. Tsai said. “The affiliation with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where we have the largest residency program in the country as part of the Mount Sinai Health System, means we have the resources and the support to meet that commitment and to continue setting standards in caring for patients with diseases of the eyes, ears, nose, and throat for many years to come.”

About New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai

Founded in 1820 and now one of the world’s leading facilities for treating diseases of the eyes, ears, nose, and throat, New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai (NYEE) combines a rich history of specialty care with award-winning clinical excellence in order to serve New York community, as well as patients from the Tri-State area, across the nation, and internationally. NYEE is home to breakthrough clinical research that has introduced now widely practiced diagnostic and surgical techniques and is maintaining a leadership position in the fields of ophthalmology, otolaryngology, head and neck surgery, and plastic and reconstructive surgery. NYEE’s Department of Ophthalmology is nationally ranked No. 11 on 2020-2021 U.S. News & World Report's "Best Hospitals” survey.


About the Mount Sinai Health System

The Mount Sinai Health System is New York City's largest academic medical system, encompassing eight hospitals, a leading medical school, and a vast network of ambulatory practices throughout the greater New York region. Mount Sinai is a national and international source of unrivaled education, translational research and discovery, and collaborative clinical leadership ensuring that we deliver the highest quality care—from prevention to treatment of the most serious and complex human diseases. The Health System includes more than 7,200 physicians and features a robust and continually expanding network of multispecialty services, including more than 400 ambulatory practice locations throughout the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester, and Long Island. The Mount Sinai Hospital is ranked No. 14 on U.S. News & World Report's "Honor Roll" of the Top 20 Best Hospitals in the country and the Icahn School of Medicine as one of the Top 20 Best Medical Schools in country. Mount Sinai Health System hospitals are consistently ranked regionally by specialty and our physicians in the top 1% of all physicians nationally by U.S. News & World Report.

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