History of Vision Research at the University of Michigan

Dr. Matthew Alpern
Mathew Alpern, PhD

The Beginning

The University of Michigan has a long tradition of excellence in vision research and in training vision scientists. Vision research at U-M dates back to at least 1927 when Gordon Lynn Walls, ScD began his studies of the retina in the Department of Zoology, first as a graduate student (receiving his ScD in 1931) and then as a postdoctoral fellow (1931 – 1934). Walls would later publish the influential book “The Vertebrate Eye and Its Adaptive Radiation”. In 1941, Harold Falls, MD in the Department of Ophthalmology helped found the U-M Heredity Clinic, the first of its kind in the United States, and began investigating the links between heredity and eye diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa and retinoblastoma, thereby laying the foundation for modern ophthalmic genetics. In 1945, H. Richard Blackwell, PhD enrolled as a graduate student in the Department of Psychology to complete his PhD thesis work on human vision, which he had started before World War II at Brown University under the direction of famed psychologist Clarence Graham. In 1948 Blackwell became a faculty member of that department and established the Vision Research Laboratory, and in 1952 he joined the Department of Ophthalmology as Associate Professor of Physiological Optics. During his years at U-M (1945 – 1958) Blackwell evaluated psychophysical methods for measuring visual thresholds in humans, publishing a book titled “Psychophysical Thresholds: Experimental Studies of Methods of Measurement” in 1953, and his seminal paper “Contrast thresholds of the human eye” (Blackwell 1946, J. Opt. Soc. Am. 36:624-43) continues to be cited frequently today.

Mathew Alpern, PhD

In 1955, Blackwell hired Mathew Alpern, PhD as a research associate in the Vision Research Laboratory. Alpern was promoted to Assistant Professor of Physiological Optics in the Ophthalmology Department in 1956 and quickly became one of the leading vision researchers in the world. According to the obituary published in the New York Times in 1996, “A good part of what medical science knows about the mechanisms of human vision and the nature of color-vision defects stems from Dr. Alpern's studies at the Vision Research Laboratory at the university's Medical School.” In addition to color vision, Alpern worked on oculomotor responses and invented an electrophysiological technique called focal electroretinography. Alpern stayed at U-M for his entire career, retiring as Professor Emeritus of Physiological Optics and Psychology in 1991. He received the Friedenwald Award from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) in 1974, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1991. It was often rumored that Alpern had been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize. Both Blackwell and Alpern collaborated regularly with Wilfred Kincaid, PhD, a professor in the Department of Mathematics whose research interests included visual psychophysics.

1960s – 1980s

In the 1960s several eminent vision researchers joined the U-M faculty, including Daniel Weintraub, PhD, (Department of Psychology, 1962 – 1995) who worked on many aspects of human visual perception especially illusions; Charles Butter, PhD, (Department of Psychology, 1962 – 1999) who studied visual attention; William Uttal, PhD, (Department of Psychology, 1963 – 1986) who specialized in form perception; David Krantz, PhD, (Department of Psychology, 1964 – 1985) who studied color perception, often in collaboration with Mat Alpern; and Daniel Green, PhD, (Departments of Ophthalmology and Biomedical Engineering, 1966 – 2002) whose research encompassed many areas including light/dark adaptation, contrast sensitivity, optical transfer function, and laser interference visual acuity. Two additional prominent vision scientists became U-M faculty members in the 1970s: Stephen Easter, PhD, (Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, 1970 – 2003) who studied retinal electrophysiology, neural control of eye movements, and development of the visual system; and John McReynolds, PhD, (Department of Molecular & Integrative Physiology, 1974 – 2007) who used electrophysiological methods to understand information processing and neuromodulation in the retina. Pamela Raymond, PhD, who had done both undergraduate and graduate research in Steve Easter’s lab, joined the U-M faculty in 1981 first at the medical school and then in the Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, studying retinal development and regeneration until retiring in 2017.

1985 - 2012

Vision research in the Ophthalmology Department reached new heights during the tenure of chair Paul Lichter, MD, MS, who renamed the department “Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences” to highlight the importance of scientific research. One of the first prominent vision scientists Lichter hired was Paul Sieving, MD, PhD, in 1985. With dual MD/PhD degrees, Sieving had extensive experience with clinical practice as well as research. At U-M he not only conducted internationally renowned studies into hereditary retinal degeneration but also initiated a clinical service specializing in retinal dystrophy. Sieving helped Lichter dramatically expand research in the department by recruiting many new faculty members, for example developmental biologists Peter Hitchcock, PhD in 1986 and Anand Swaroop, PhD, in 1990, electrophysiologists Bret Hughes, PhD in 1989 and Donald Puro, MD, PhDin 1990, biochemist Debra Thompson, PhD, in 1990, and geneticists Julia Richards, PhD, in 1990 and Radha Ayyagari, PhD, in 1996. Dr. Sieving had such a successful career at U-M that in 2001 he was tapped by the NIH to serve as the new director of the National Eye Institute.


Since the turn of the 21st century vision research has continued to flourish at U-M under the leadership of Paul P. Lee, MD, JD. Today, over 30 faculty members across several departments are conducting interdisciplinary research to understand how the visual system works and how it is impacted in various diseases. We hope that you will join us in this exciting endeavor.