Dr. Harris Ripps

Dr. Harris Ripps of Boca Raton, FL, passed away September 18 in Boston. An O.D. and M.D. Ph.D. from Columbia University. Dr. Ripps was formerly Professor of ophthalmology, visual science, anatomy, cell biology, physiology and biophysics and Chairman of Ophthalmological Research at New York University Medical School and later at the University of Illinois’ Chicago College of Medicine; and research scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA from 1968-2014.

Dr. Ripps made invaluable contributions to the study of the mechanisms by which retinal cells communicate with one another and also to basic science investigations to identify the causes of visual loss in inherited retinal diseases. His research was continually funded by NIH from 1975 through 2007. He was honored for his research contributions throughout his career and received some of the most prestigious international and national awards in vision science, including the Edrige-Green Award of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, the prestigious Proctor Medal from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, and The Alcon Research Institute Award of Excellence. Dr. Ripps was a Distinguished University Professor who held the Charles I. Young / Lions of Illinois Endowed Chair of Ocular Research from 1985, when he joined the Department, until his retirement from UIC in 2009.

In 1963 the FBI delivered a top-secret device to Dr. Ripps. It was an Argon laser. They wanted to see the effects of this new device on the human eye. The experiment was done on the rabbit eye. The first time it was used it made a loud pop and the rabbit died. The government agents were ecstatic about having a death ray. The agents did not know that rabbits die from fright. But Dr. Ripps was the first person to see the effects of the laser on the retina. Now the laser is routinely used to save sight.

Later in his career he discovered the presence of the dark current in the retina. Before his discovery, everybody thought the way signals worked in the eye was, one stimulus initiated another and then another and so on until the brain saw the signal. What really happened was that there was a stimulus that shut off a flowing current in the retina. This created a much faster response for us to actually see the light.

More recently, looking carefully at a blinding condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, he discovered that only small clusters of cells were actually affected by the genetic disorder, but the entire retina died with time. This was because a chemical neurotransmitter was being released that was toxic to the other retina cells. This was a chemical never discovered to be in the retina before. As it turns out this may be why many eye diseases can lead to a progressive vision loss even when treatment has been initiated.

A Navy veteran, Dr. Ripps’ avocations included art, music, sports and photography. He was a collector of Whistler graphics and Vanity Fair prints, and an avid opera buff. He passionately followed football, tennis, and golf. He was the devoted and happily married husband of Jeanne (Meisler) for 64 years, cherished father of Bradford (father-in law of Debbie), Glenn and Owen; loving grandfather of Jeffrey (his wife Christina), Zachary (his wife Adrianna) and Molly, and proud great-grandfather of Johanna. He was a fun brother-in-law and a loyal friend. A memorial service will be held in New York on October 5th.