Helena Biantovskaya Fedukowicz: An epitome of contagious passion and spirit : Indian Journal of Ophthalmology

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Women in Ophthalmology

Helena Biantovskaya Fedukowicz: An epitome of contagious passion and spirit

Bansal, Rolika; Spivey, Bruce E1; Honavar, Santosh G

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doi: 10.4103/ijo.IJO_1962_22
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History has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own.” – Michelle Obama

The pioneer of ocular microbiology, Helena Biantovskaya Fedukowicz, not only had an adventurous life, but also soared through struggles along with her husband. She rose to provide us with an insight into ocular microbiology by carrying out meticulous research. She set a perfect example of “nothing is impossible, if passion is the driving force.”

Born on June 4, 1900,[1] in Petrovka (Mariopol), Ukraine, to a family of an orthodox priest, Helena Biantovskaya [Fig. 1] graduated from the Yekaterinoslav Medical Academy, Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, in 1921[2] and joined the faculty till 1929. She taught as a lecturer in microbiology and ocular infections at Moscow Eye Hospital[2] for a year, after which she joined as an assistant and docent of ophthalmology at the Medical School in Kiev (1930–1942).[1] During this phase, in 1935, she completed her thesis on intra-ocular melanoma[2] and earned her doctor of philosophy degree at the Kiev Medical Institute. She progressed to the position of professor of ophthalmology in Vinniza, Ukraine, in 1942.[1]

Figure 1:
Dr. Helena Biantovskaya Fedukowicz (1900–1998)[2]

During one of her projects at a mining institute, Dr. Helena Biantovskaya met her future husband, Waclaw Fedukowicz, a geophysicist. During this phase, she had the opportunity to meet and be inspired by Dr. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, a Russian physiologist (known for his work on classical conditioning) and Dr. Vladimir Petrovich Filatov, a Russian ophthalmologist and surgeon (the pioneer of keratoplasty). The adventures in her life began when during a mountain climbing event she met Nikolai Bukhrain, a leading theorist of a communist party. Following the party’s defeat by Stalin, Dr. Fedukowicz was investigated due to her encounter with Bukhrain and was accused of poisoning a drinking well with bacteria from her laboratory. The German invasion of the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) led to the closure of her medical school by the German Occupation Administration.[1]

Dr. Fedukowicz and her husband, shifted to Poland with their relatives but were captured by the Nazis and were sent to a work camp for displaced persons in Germany. They were confined in a settlement village in Bavaria while waiting for assistance from the International Relief Organization.[3] As they were without citizenship and passport, they faced serious troubles and struggles. However, they were able to emigrate to the United States of America in 1949 and start a new life. Even though they were very tenuous financially, they survived while working in a factory and living in an unfurnished apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

Through the Polish Committee, she met the family of Prince Sapieha, an exiled aristocrat. They helped the Fedukowicz couple in learning English and establishing contacts.[2] Her interaction with Dr. George Wise, an esteemed academic ophthalmologist at New York University (NYU), Bellevue, was the turning point in her career. Dr. Wise was impressed by Dr. Fedukowicz’s clinical expertise in tuberculosis and trachoma and she was offered a much needed fellowship at NYU by Dr. Alson Braley (chairman of the department of ophthalmology and later Chief at Iowa) in 1949.[1] This life changing moment also was an event of paramount importance in the history of ophthalmic microbiology.

Dr. Fedukowicz, over the next 25 years, worked diligently and left a striking impression. Even though she was unable to obtain a medical degree in the United States, her contributions were an integral part of ophthalmology in terms of clinical inputs, detailed research, and publications on ocular infections. Her articles included extensive work on ocular rosacea, lysozyme, and pigmented limbal lesions.[3] She found high incidence of Moraxella conjunctivitis and keratitis in the population of New York’s Bowery and established a contributory relationship with alcoholism and malnutrition. After tracing the endemic source of the organism with the help of her residents, she also clarified the taxonomy, morphology, and clinical features of Moraxella. This included adventurous treks to the endemic area and sampling visitors of bars (targeted epidemiological group).

In 1963, Dr. Fedukowicz published the first edition of her textbook, External Infections of the Eye, in English. This book was the first of its kind, with a fountain of knowledge about ocular infections, clinical correlations, and colorful plates of slit-lamp drawing and microscopic features by the artist, Beatrice Glover. The colorful plates were financially supported by Dr. Wise as an anonymous personal donation. The book was very well appreciated by different institutions and it is considered as one of the top hundred important ophthalmology books of the twentieth century.[4] Its co-authored editions were released in 1978[5] and 1985, and a Spanish edition in 1987.

Even though Dr. Fedukowicz retired in 1976 in Sarasota, Florida, her legacy lives on. She was an inspiration and was loved by her former students. She hosted jovial meetings at her house which were a perfect blend of her culinary skills, educational vignettes, and sessions of anamnesis. She was awarded an honorary fellowship by the American Academy of Ophthalmology in 1982.[1] In 1990, the Congress of Russian-Americans (of which Dr. Fedukowicz was a founding member) elected her to the Russian-American Hall of Fame.[6] Her life-time contributions were acknowledged by the immunology/microbiology section of the Association of Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO), and she was presented with an award and a plaque in 1991.[1] As years passed by, she developed progressive infirmities, including macular degeneration, but her optimism only grew stronger. She said, “I still have four and a half senses” which reflected her positive approach to life.[1]

After living a legendary life, she passed away in 1998.[2] During her active years, with her passion for teaching ocular bacteriology, she inculcated the innovative approach in her students with a strong will to look forward and progress with every passing day. The motto she lived by and handed over to her students was “This is your bank. Fill it up!”


1. Baum J, Helena B Fedukowicz:Pioneer educator in ocular microbiology Doc Ophthalmol 1999 99 215 8
2. Charles NC, Stetson SM, Baum JL, Helena B Fedukowicz (1900-1998) Arch Ophthalmol 2000 118 595
3. IBBO-International Biography and Bibliography of Ophthalmologists and Visual Scientist (A-Z) Wayenborgh Publishing 2018 972
4. Important Ophthalmology Books of the 20th Century-Thompson &Blanchard Available from: https://webeye.ophth.uiowa.edu/dept/20thcenturybooks/100Books.htm Lastaccessed on 2022 Aug 07
5. Wolter JR External infections of the Eye J Pediatr Ophthalmol Strabismus 1978 15 330
6. Hall of Fame Available from: http://www.russian-americans.org/hall-of-fame/ Last accessed on 2022 Aug 07
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