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Leon Lewis, MD
Member, Berkeley Optometry Hall of Fame

Leon Lewis

Leon Lewis (1904 – 1977) was born in Butte, Montana. Attending the University of Washington, he received a BS degree in 1925 and an MD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1929. His internship was spent at a San Francisco Hospital. From there he was an attending physician at Sonoma State Home, Department of Institutions, and in the wards in Bellevue Hospital in New York City. During World War II, Dr. Lewis joined the US Naval Medical Corps and was stationed at American occupied Okinawa. As the Senior Medical Officer of the Military Government Research Center, Commander Lewis led a research team isolating the Japanese B encephalitis virus. Following WW II, Dr. Lewis returned to the Bay Area to continue his medical career in academia and maintain a private practice in internal medicine in Berkeley, California.

A natural teacher, Dr. Lewis was a lecturer at Cornell University Medical School and Stanford University School of Medicine. He taught Industrial Medicine at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco, and was an Associate Professor of Industrial Health at the School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley. Later, he was appointed medical lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Optometry.

Dr. Lewis developed a special expertise and became an internationally known authority on industrial health and rehabilitation. He served as a consultant to the World Health Organization and travelled extensively in the Middle East inspecting industrial safety conditions, sanitation and health education. He was the US delegate to the Fourth International Poliomyelitis Conference in Geneva. He served as Chairman, Advisory Committee, Aid to the Needy Disabled Program, California State Department of Social Welfare, and Chairman, California Governor’s Conference on Aging, and was appointed a consultant to the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

His hospital and administrative positions included Chief, Communicable Disease, at Highland-Alameda County Hospital, Chief, Poliomyelitis Service, Highland and Fairmont Hospitals, Director of Respiratory and Rehabilitation Center, Fairmont Hospital, Chief, Rehabilitation Service, Herrick Memorial Hospital, and Chief of Rehabilitation services at Contra Costa County Hospital in Martinez, California.

His resume includes 37 research and clinical care publications. He was a co-author of the authoritative resource book “Rehabilitation for the Care of the Disabled and Elderly.”

He was on the American Board of Internal Medicine, the American Board of Industrial Hygiene, and was licensed to practice medicine in California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. Honor society memberships included Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, Phi Lambda Upsilon, Delta Omega and Alpha Omega Alpha. Dr. Lewis was also listed in the publications American Men of Medicine, American Men of Science, Who’s Who in the West, Who’s Who in Industrial Medicine, and Contemporary Authors.

The period following World War II has been called the “American inquisition” as a number of states, California included, along with the US government, enacted laws to sanction and punish anyone believed to have “subversive” ideas. Controversy in California began when the Board of Regents of the University of California required a “loyalty oath” of all employees. This was followed by a California state statute, the Levering Act, which contained a blanket abjuration of affiliation provision, and required all public employees to take a new oath. Dr. Lewis rose in protest stating “the Levering Act is an intolerable perversion of law in the eyes of liberty loving Americans.” As a further protest, he resigned his faculty position from the University of California. Ultimately, after many legal battles, courts recognized the defects in loyalty oaths and Dr. Lewis was encouraged to consider a return to academia.

Return he did, and in 1962 he was appointed as medical lecturer at University of California, Berkeley School of Optometry. This new role brought with it a whole new set of challenges. It was during this time that anti-optometric sentiment from ophthalmology was perhaps at its highest. Organized medicine was strongly opposed to physicians teaching in optometry schools. In fact, an American Medical Association resolution even stated that it was unethical for a physician to teach in a school of optometry. Threats were made vaguely implying the possible loss of hospital privileges, and physicians were ordered to end all connections to optometry schools. Dr. Lewis had long recognized the potential role that optometry could have in public health, and as a champion of academic freedom he chose to ignore the protestations of organized medicine.

Instead, he became determined to not only continue teaching, but to do all he could to encourage and nurture the growth of optometry as a profession. He understood that this development could only be achieved through education and he believed he was in the right place at the right time to help achieve this goal. He loved his role as an educator and brought his background in medical education and clinical experience to the classroom. He was an amazing teacher, down to earth and non-condescending. His lectures in physical medicine and pathology were concise and easy to understand. He made the subject relevant to optometry knowing that optometrists were often the first to encounter systemic diseases. Throughout his lectures was the gentle reminder that health care should be given with a generous dose of compassion, empathy and recognition of the dignity of the human spirit. He was kind and generous, sharing his knowledge with all who wished to learn.

His association with optometry did not come without a cost. There were objections and derisive comments from colleagues and even an occasional loss of friendship. But he taught because he felt a duty to provide the best education possible to those who would care for others. In the end, it was Dr. Lewis who persevered and, as a result, so has optometry.

Dr. Lewis’ national and international standing in the medical profession gave credence to optometric education, making it difficult for others to criticize. It was through the action of individuals such as Leon Lewis that UC optometry began the transition of “trade” status to that of a respected member of the health care professions.

It is with admiration and a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude that we recognize Dr. Leon Lewis for his dedication, foresight, and courage and for the influential role he had in the development of optometric education and the growth of the optometric profession.