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Kelman was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 23, 1930 to Eva and David Kelman. After graduating from Forest Hills High School and Boston's Tufts University, he completed medical studies at the University of Geneva, Switzerland; an internship at Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn; and residency in ophthalmology at the Wills Eye Hospital, Philadelphia. He started a private practice in New York City in 1960.
In 1962 Dr. Kelman devised the cryo-probe, a freezing instrument for the extraction of cataracts within their capsules. This became the most widely-used method for cataract removal in the world until about 1978 when it was supplanted by extracapsular cataract extraction with irrigation and aspiration, also introduced by Dr. Kelman and still the technique used by a majority of cataract surgeons today. In 1963 Dr. Kelman pioneered the use of freezing for the repair of retinal detachments. Retinal cryopexy remains a frequent adjunct in retinal surgery to this day.
Kelman phacoemulsification, introduced in 1967, reduced recovery from cataract surgery from a 10-day hospital stay to today’s out-patient cataract surgery, allowing the patient immediate return to activity. The procedure employs a small ultrasonic tip whose vibrations break up the mass of the cataractous lens within its capsule and suction it out through a small needle. It has been estimated that 100 million such procedures have been performed worldwide. In 1975 Dr. Kelman began designing lens implants for use in conjunction with cataract surgery. Numerous companies including Allergan Medical Optics, IOLAB, Alcon Surgical, Domilens and Storz Ophthalmics sought his services. Dr. Kelman became the world’s most successful intraocular lens designer.
Neurosurgeons have adapted the Kelman phacoemulsification machine for use in the dissection of tumors from the delicate brain and spinal cord tissue in children. In this way, the device has saved hundreds of young lives. Phacoemulsification was the stimulus for small incision surgery.
Later in life, Kelman worked on several projects, including artificial blood vessels, artificial corneas and a magnetic cataract extraction procedure which retains the patient’s normal ability to focus on near and distant objects. Other applications of the magnetic technique can be used to remove plaque from arteries and growths from the digestive tract, prostate, bladder and other areas without invasive surgery.
Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at New York Medical College, Dr. Kelman held the position of attending surgeon at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary and Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. He was also a consultant surgeon at many hospitals throughout the world and he received some of the highest honors in science and technological innovation.
A past president of The American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons, Dr. Kelman has written hundreds of articles, papers and scientific books as well as a lay book on cataracts and an autobiography entitled Through My Eyes.
Known as Charlie to his friends, Dr. Kelman found time to learn to pilot his own helicopter and avidly followed his hobbies of golf, music and performing. He entertained on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, The Barbara Walters Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The David Letterman Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show and numerous others. Charlie appeared in concert with Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie and performed in concert at Carnegie Hall, Las Vegas and Atlantic City with The Spinners, Glen Campbell, James Darren, Regis Philbin, and others. Columbia Records also released an instrumental recording of “Moonlight Serenade” in which all the reed parts were played by Charlie.
Dr. Kelman continued to teach his surgical techniques to doctors around the world, while devoting his spare time to writing lyrics and music for several musicals, “The Marrano” and most passionately, “The Right Pair of Shoes,” until his death in 2004 from lung cancer. Posthumously, Dr. Kelman was honored with the Lasker Award, the nation’s highest award for medical science, among other accolades.
A beloved family man, Charlie was husband to Ann; father to David (deceased), Lesley, Jennifer, Evan, Jason, and Seth; father-in-law to David Koeppel; and grandfather to Noah, Adam and Claire. He was admired and loved by his sister Ruth Dorfman and her husband Bob.
There is no doubt Dr. Kelman’s impact is as unique as his personality and practices. Charlie Kelman’s phacoemulsification surgery has proven to be the rare technology with longevity – it is still the most common method used worldwide for the procedure. The program cites unheard of statistics for a 30-year-old innovation: nearly 100% of the almost 3 million cataract surgeries performed each year in the United States are done with phacoemulsification, and nearly 10 million each year worldwide. The procedure saves millions in healthcare costs both in the way the procedure is done and by the outcome of preventing blindness, thus allowing people to continue to contribute to society. Kelman spawned an empire that thrives to this day. Additionally, as his colleague Dr. Jack Dodick, chairman, department of ophthalmology, New York University Langone Medical Center and attending in ophthalmology at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Institute, notes in the program, “When Charlie was first able to remove an unwanted tissue inside the human body through a small hole, he basically became the grandfather of all small incision surgery in the whole body.”
Dr. Kelman received some of the highest honors in science and technological innovation including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation (formerly known as the National Medal of Technology), the highest honor for technological achievement bestowed by the President of the United States on America’s leading innovators; and the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s prestigious Laureate Award, awarded six months before he died of cancer. Posthumously, Kelman was honored with the Lasker Award, the nation’s highest award for medical science, among other accolades.
In 2013, a biographical profile of Dr. Kelman was included in a bestselling book called Saving Sight: An eye surgeon's look at life behind the mask and the heroes who changed the way we see, by Andrew Lam, M.D.
- Lam, Andrew. Saving Sight: An eye surgeon's look at life behind the mask and the heroes who changed the way we see (978-1617203794) Bokeelia, FL; Irie Books, 2013.
- Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award, 2004. Charles Kelman, For revolutionizing the surgical removal of cataracts, turning a 10-day hospital stay into an outpatient procedure, and dramatically reducing complications.
- Charles Kelman, MD, father of phaco, dies, Ophthalmology Times, Jun 9, 2004
-  The US patent, MATERIAL REMOVAL APPARATUS AND METHOD EMPLOYING HIGH FREQUENCY VIBRATIONS