Artifacts in the Kenneth C. Swan, M.D. Papers

July - August 2009

"You don’t win today's struggles with the points you scored yesterday"
Kenneth C. Swan, M.D.

Kenneth Carl Swan, the father of ophthalmology in Oregon, was born in 1912 in Kansas City, MO. He moved to Portland as a boy where he attended Franklin High School and received his bachelor's degree from the University of Oregon in 1933. He went on to graduate with a medical degree from the University of Oregon Medical School in 1936 where he won a Rockefeller Student Research assistantship in pharmacology. He moved east to study at the University of Wisconsin but it was there that he made the decision to change his specialty to ophthalmology.

In 1938, Dr. Swan married Virginia A. Grone, daughter of Oregon pioneers and Portland native. They spent the following years at the University of Iowa College of Medicine while Swan completed his residency and subsequently he became a member of the faculty. In 1945, when he joined the faculty at UOMS, they moved back to Portland.

In 1945, he founded the first full-time department of ophthalmology in the Pacific Northwest at UOMS and became the school's first full-time clinical professor. He chaired the department until his retirement in 1978. Swan also began the first three–year residency program in ophthalmology in the Pacific Northwest.

During the 1930's and 1940's, he conducted research that led to the creation of new drugs, for which he became internationally known, including the artificial tear, methylcellulose. Listed among his many accomplishments is his partnership with Dr. Leonard Christensen that led to the development of the world's first microscope for ocular surgery, his role in the development of new therapies for childhood glaucoma, binocular vision disorders and traumatic eye wounds and the Swan-White compound whose derivatives are still used in eye examinations today.

Dr. Swan also proved to be a brilliant and very successful fundraiser. In 1949, with the generous contributions from the Oregon State Elks, he was able to establish the first children’s eye clinic in an academic setting in the United States. The Elks have contributed millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer work hours to the Casey Eye Institute, working to establish and support the Elks Children's Eye Clinic.

During the 1980's, Swan partnered with Fredrick Fraunfelder, MD, who also succeeded Dr. Swan as chair of the department, to raise OHSU's first significant capital campaign, a $31 million effort to construct the Casey Eye Institute, which brought ophthalmic education, research and treatment into one center. In 2000-2006, he also helped to raise $16 million to advance Casey during OHSU's Oregon Opportunity campaign.

A respected and beloved physician and colleague, he was a teacher and mentor to more than 100 ophthalmologists, six of whom went on to chair departments at US medical schools. He was a member of many associations and a recipient of numerous awards and certificates, including the American Ophthalmological Society's prestigious award, the Howe Medal for distinguished service. At the time, Dr. Swan was only the 44th recipient in the Society's 112 year history. He received the Proctor Medal from the Association for Research in Ophthalmology and was also named the Governor's Scientist for Oregon. In addition, he received the UOMS Alumni Meritorious Achievement award, the highest honor granted by the school.

Undaunted by retirement, Dr. Swan continued to see patients and published papers into the 1990s. He died at the age of 95 on February 23, 2007, following his wife by just two months.