War-hero eye surgeon dies at 94

Charles Schepens, a wartime French Resistance hero who later became a pioneer in retina surgery, has died at the age of 94 after suffering a stroke.

The Belgian-born doctor, who trained at London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital before the war, assumed an alias while working with the Resistance in France in 1942 and 1943 that was so successful he fooled both the Nazis and his French neighbours.

Schepens worked under the alias of a lumber mill operator named Jacques Perot in the French Basque village of Mendive, using the mill’s tramway to smuggle people and documents over the Pyrenees into Spain.

The Germans learned about the operation and Schepens was forced to abandon it. He managed to escape to England and after the war resumed his career in ophthalmology.

In 1947, he went to the US as a fellow in opthalmic research at Harvard Medical School. Two years later, he established and became the first director of the Retina Service at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

He later established the Retina Foundation at Harvard, which is now named The Schepens Eye Research Institute.

Schepens, who is considered the father of modern retina surgery, developed instruments that helped doctors more easily diagnose retina problems and repair them.

His work is credited with improving the success rate for surgical retina reattachment from about 40% to more than 90% during his career, The Boston Globe reports.

“He was quite a man. He accomplished a lot on his life,” his son Luc, said.

On March 21, a few days before his stroke, the consul general of France presented Schepens, of Nahant, Massachusetts, with the French Legion of Honour award for smuggling more than 100 people, including Belgian resistance leaders, from France into Spain.

Schepens was born in Belgium and received his medical degree from the University of Gand in 1935. He subsequently trained in eye diseases at Moorfields.

In 1939 he joined the medical corps of the Belgian Air Force. After Belgium fell to the Germans, he started working for the resistance, but escaped to France using forged papers when the Nazis began to suspect him.

Schepens is also survived by his wife, Marie Germaine, three daughters, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on June 24 in Harvard’s Memorial Church.

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