In the 1950s, doctors were baffled. Babies — especially premature babies — were going blind in alarming numbers. Doctors were looking at vitamins and hormones as possible culprits. Dr. Arnall Patz, who was then a resident at Washington’s Gallinger Municipal Hospital, had a theory that the treatment of premature babies with pure oxygen in incubators might be the cause of this horrifying trend.

Retrolental fibroplasia (RLF)

Dr. Patz was a young doctor training in Washington after World War II and he observed that a new incubator, which was sealed all around to maintain the internal conditions, was helping doctors save the lives of premature infants. Unfortunately, while treatments for premature babies were advancing, cases of retrolental fibroplasia (RFL) were skyrocketing.

Dr. Patz wondered whether the atmosphere of near-total oxygen inside the incubator was correlated with babies going blind. He shared that it was a standard practice back then to “put the babies in incubators and crank up the oxygen” which was understandable since it readily turned struggling babies from blue to pink.

Dr. Patz tried to find the connection and his research led him to conclude that excess oxygen can cause RFL on premature babies. He sought funding to prove his hypothesis but was denied due to his unscientific and dangerous proposal, so he funded his own trial by borrowing money from family.

His study showed that 7 of the 29 babies on high oxygen developed advanced eye disease while none of the 37 babies on low oxygen did. He later learned that oxygen caused blood vessels at the back of the eye to constrict and in its attempt to compensate, the eye developed twisted vessels that bled and destroyed the retina.

In 1956, Dr. Patz was awarded the Lasker Medical Research Award with V. Everett Kinsey, a biochemist who carried out a larger study on the matter to confirm Dr. Patz’s findings.