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Neuro-Ophthalmology News

Festschrift for Simmons Lessell, MD

Rizzo, Joseph F. III MD

Section Editor(s): Digre, Kathleen B. MD

Author Information
Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology: December 2013 - Volume 33 - Issue 4 - p e26-e27
doi: 10.1097/WNO.0000000000000056
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A Festschrift was held in honor of Simmons Lessell, MD, at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI) on May 25, 2013, the day of his 80th birthday. This Festschrift offered a reflection of the many contributions that Dr Lessell has made to the careers and lives of the 39 fellows whom he has trained.

The event began with an overview of the social, political, and scientific state of the world at the time that Dr Lessell was born in 1933. This was followed by a summary of Dr Lessell's educational and professional background, including photographs of Dr Lessell while he was a student at the renowned Stuyvesant High School in New York City, and a commentary on Dr Lessell's educational years at Amherst College and Cornell Medical School, where he also served as an intern. Dr Lessell studied under George Schumacher, MD, then Chairman of the Department of Neurology at the University of Vermont. He quickly applied his neurological expertise by studying the recently discovered Lytico–Bodig disease while serving in Guam within the Epidemiology and Genetics Branch of the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness of the National Institutes of Health. Upon his return to the United States, Dr Lessell became a research fellow for 2 years in the Howe Laboratory at the MEEI. During this time, his interest in neuro-ophthalmology was born while working with David G. Cogan, MD, then Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology and the founder of the neuro-ophthalmology service at the Infirmary. Dr Lessell completed an ophthalmology residency at MEEI and immediately was recruited as the first neuro-ophthalmologist at Boston University School of Medicine, where he remained for 18 years. In 1984, he was recruited back to the MEEI as director of the neuro-ophthalmology service, a position he held until 2005.

The meeting in Dr Lessell's honor was organized around 20-minute lectures given by 20 fellows who traveled from as far away as Australia. The fellows presented a summary of their scientific or clinical work, with emphasis on ways in which Dr Lessell has impacted their lives and professional careers. These reflections produced some tears, shed in happiness and with gratitude.

Those who presented at the meeting included: Patrick Sibony, MD (Stony Brook University Medical Center, Stony Brook, NY); Jon Currie, MBBS, FRACP (Melbourne Medical School, Melbourne, Australia); Alfredo Sadun, MD, PhD (University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA); Joseph F. Rizzo (Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA); Nancy Newman, MD (Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA); Nicholas Volpe, MD (Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, IL); Leonard Levin, MD, PhD (McGill University Health Center, Montreal, Canada); Charlotte Thompson, MD (University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC); Howard Pomeranz, MD (Hofstra North Shore Long Island Jewish School of Medicine, Hempstead, NY); Robert Egan, MD (Legacy Meridian Park Hospital, Tualatin, Oregon); David Newman-Toker, MD, PhD (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD); Michael Lee, MD (University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN); Dean Cestari, MD (Harvard Medical School); Jonathan Kim, MD (University of Southern California); Susan Pepin, MD (Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, Hanover, NH); Marc Dinkin, MD (Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, NY); Gena Heidary, MD, PhD (Harvard Medical School); Rebecca Stacy, MD, PhD (Harvard Medical School); and Cristiano Oliveira, MD (Weill Cornell Medical College).

Others fellows whom Dr Lessell trained include: James Coppeto, MD; Michael Cohen, MD (Headache and Neurologic Center of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA); Robert Gise, MD (Worcester, MA); Irma Lessell, MD (Lexington, MA); Neal Snebold, MD (Boston, MA); Nancy Canter Weiner, MD (Atlanta, GA); Steve Hamilton, MD (Seattle, WA); Judith Warner (University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT); Misha Pless (Harvard Medical School, currently in Lucerne, Switzerland); Glennville March, MD (Los Angeles, CA); Michelle Banks, MD (Los Angeles, CA); Kenneth Chang, MD (Harvard Medical School); Adam Cohen, MD (Harvard Medical School); Ellen Mitchell, MD (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pittsburgh, PA); Ming He, MD (New Jersey Neuroscience Institute, JFK Medical Center, Edison, NJ); Ivey Thornton, MD (Cleveland, OH); Joshua Kruger (Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem, Israel); Behzad Mansouri, MD, PhD (University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Canada); and Philip Skidd, MD (University of Vermont, Burlington, VT). Figure 1 depicts those in attendance.

FIG. 1
FIG. 1:
Photographs of all fellows in attendance at theFestschrift held in honor of Simmons Lessell, MD, on May 25, 2013. Dr Simmons Lessell and his wife and prior fellow, Dr Irma Lessell, are seated. The venue for this photograph was the Charles Snyder rare book room of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

Among these fellows, four of them serve as Department Chairs (Sibony, Levin, Volpe, and Pless) and one serves as an Associate Dean (Pepin). Thirty of the 39 fellows are at academic centers.

I had the opportunity to present 2 interludes reflecting on special aspects of Dr Lessell's life. The first was dedicated to his wife of 58 years, Irma Lessell, MD, who has provided inspiration and love to Simmons throughout his career. The second interlude was dedicated to 2 individuals who were mentors to Dr Lessell: George Schumacher, MD, and David G. Cogan, MD. There was also a special moment to reflect on the life of Ephraim Friedman, MD, a dear friend and close colleague of the Lessells who passed away in 2011; Dr Friedman is the namesake of one of the Lessell's sons.

A final session provided comic relief. Bedecked with a sultan's hat and a black cape, Dr Lessell was asked to play the role of the great sage of television from decades past, Carnac the Magnificent. I was the stand-in for sidekick, Ed McMahon, who handed sealed envelopes that contained provocative clues of thought to Carnac (Fig. 2). With ceremonial flourish in opening each envelope, Dr Lessell, aka “Carnac,” used his unique magical powers to divine questions that provided insight into the meaning of the clues. No topic was off limits, and off-limit topics were plentiful, to the delight of all.

FIG. 2
FIG. 2:
Comedic interlude featuring Simmons Lessell (left) playing the role of “Carnac the Magnificent” and Joseph Rizzo (right) playing the role of sidekick Ed McMahon. This skit, which was modeled off of a routine often used by Johnny Carson in the old “Tonight Show,” began with a visual search in the audience for the “great sage and mystic from the East.” Dr Lessell, who had had a fondness for this television character, was then ushered to the front of the auditorium and gowned as Carnac. Though Dr Lessell had no advance notice of this skit, he adeptly stepped into this memorable character role.

The fellows presented Dr Lessell with a commemorative ceramic bowl, which rests upon a square mahogany base lined with 4 bronze plaques engraved with the names of the fellows whom Dr Lessell has trained. Dr Lessell closed the festivities with a remarkably humble statement of appreciation to all of his fellows and to the many others who were in attendance.

This Festschrift was not held as a retirement party, nor was it a fishing trip (which also would have delighted Dr Lessell). Rather, adhering to the classic connotation, this Festschrift was an opportunity to reflect upon the profound impact that an exceptional mentor has had on the lives of others. We were able to savor this glorious day with the added benefit of knowing that we still have further opportunity to learn from Dr Lessell and to laugh with him, experiences that have fostered admiration from so many of us who cherish him.

© 2013 by North American Neuro-Ophthalmology Society