Alfred Sommer

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Alfred Sommer
Alfred Sommer.jpg
Alfred Sommer
Born (1942-10-02) 2 October 1942 (age 74)
New York, New York, USA
Nationality United States
Fields Ophthalmology
International Health
Alma mater Union College (B.S., 1963)
Harvard Medical School (M.D., 1967)
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (M.H.S., 1973)
Known for Vitamin A deficiency
Blindness prevention
Notable awards Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Fries Prize for Improving Health (2008)
American Academy of Ophthalmology Laureate (2011)
Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research (2005)
National Academy of Sciences (2001)
Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award (1997)
National Academy of Medicine (1992)

Alfred (Al) Sommer is a prominent American ophthalmologist and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His research on vitamin A in the 1970s and 1980s revealed that dosing even mildly vitamin A deficient children with an inexpensive, large dose vitamin A capsule twice a year reduces child mortality by as much as 34 percent.[1] The World Bank and, recently, the Copenhagen Consensus list vitamin A supplementation as one of the most cost-effective health interventions in the world.[2][3]


Early life and education[edit]

Sommer was born on October 2, 1942 in New York City.[4] He attended Union College in Schenectady, New York and graduated summa cum laude in 1963. At Union College, Sommer received a Bachelor of Science in biology, with a minor in history.[5] Sommer attended Harvard Medical School and obtained his MD in 1967. He served as a medical intern and resident at Harvard University’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (formerly Beth Israel Hospital) from 1967 to 1969.[4]

In 1969, Sommer joined the Public Health Service as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and moved overseas with his family to work in the Cholera Research Laboratory in Dhaka, Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan).[6]

In 1973, Sommer returned to the United States and continued his education at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health (which became known as the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2000). Upon completing his Master of Health Sciences degree in epidemiology there, Sommer spent three years as a resident and fellow in ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute (associated with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine) from 1973 to 1976.[4][6]


Following his time at the Wilmer Eye Institute, Sommer became the founding director of the Dana Center for Preventative Ophthalmology in 1980.[7] He held this position until 1990 when he assumed the position of dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. While serving as the Dean of the Bloomberg School, Sommer successfully expanded both the faculty and student bodies and dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars (approximately 130 million dollars) to expanding the School's physical plant and increasing its emphasis on research and education.[8] Sommer’s efforts helped the school attain the #1 spot on the U.S. News & World Report Graduate Schools of Public Health ranking, a prestigious title it still holds to this day.[9] Sommer served as dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health until 2005,[10] when he returned to work as a professor and researcher of both epidemiology and ophthalmology. Sommer is currently a Johns Hopkins University Distinguished Service Professor,[11] inaugural Gilman Scholar,[12] and Dean Emeritus of the Bloomberg School of Public Health.[10]


Vitamin A-deficiency and Child Mortality Research[edit]

During his residency at the Wilmer Eye Institute, Sommer served as a consultant to the newly hired Director of Blindness Prevention at the American Foundation for Overseas Blind (now, Helen Keller International, or “HKI”). They suspected that Vitamin A deficiency was a commoner cause of blindness than previously thought.[citation needed] Sommer helped them investigate the issue in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Haiti, but recommended a comprehensive investigation of the causes, evolution, impact, treatment and prevention of condition.[citation needed] After completing his residency at Johns Hopkins, Sommer moved his family to Indonesia for three years to carry out the studies he had suggested. He was appointed Visiting Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Padjadjaran in Indonesia. Sommer conducted a sequence of observational and intervention trials in Indonesia, and subsequently elsewhere, that led to his discovery that Vitamin A deficiency reduces immune responsiveness, and therefore resistance to harmful infectious diseases, especially diarrhea and measles. Although these diseases aren’t considered particularly deadly in developed communities, they can have a profound impact on childhood mortality in developing countries and other underprivileged communities.[1][2]

Sommer repeated his experiments multiple times to convince to the scientific community of the importance of Vitamin A deficiency and the effective intervention of low-cost strategies for preventing the condition, especially twice-yearly large dose supplements for deficient children.[citation needed] Sommer solidified scientific support by organizing a conference on the issue at the Rockefeller Foundation center for study in Bellagio, Italy. The scientists at the conference concluded that almost any intervention that substantially improved children's vitamin A status, including the use of twice yearly large dose capsules, which was the focus of Sommer’s research, was shown to reduce the child mortality rate of these Vitamin A deficient children by as much as 34 percent.[13] He also conducted studies in which he supplemented Nepalese women of childbearing age with Vitamin A/beta-carotene and observed a 45% reduction in the maternal mortality rate.[citation needed] Sommer and his colleagues conducted further trials on the impact of dosing newborn children in populations that were vitamin A deficient vitamin A supplementation in newborns, and repeatedly demonstrated that it reduced newborn mortality by 10-20%.[14] His work demonstrated that one could save half a million children's lives every year by these low-cost interventions.[1][2]

Nepal Birthweight Studies[edit]

Following the completion of his trademark research on Vitamin A-deficiency and its supposed link to reducing child mortality rates, Dr. Sommer traveled to southeastern Nepal to further his research by conducting micronutrient supplementation studies. Southeastern Nepal was primarily chosen because the population was largely malnourished and lacked access to both adequate medical care and nutrient-dense foods. The experiment that was conducted involved randomized double blind cluster controlled trials and was developed in order to examine the resulting infant birth weights when various combinations of micronutrients were administered to a selected group of pregnant women. In total, 4,130 infants and 4,926 pregnant women participated in this research study. The selected population of pregnant women was then randomly assigned to one of five treatment groups. Each of the five treatment groups was treated with a particular set of micronutrients: folic acid, folic acid-iron, folic acid-iron-zinc, several micronutrients administered in combination with vitamin A, or just vitamin A (served as the control). The outcomes of this study were determined by measuring birthweight, birth length, and head and chest circumference. A low birthweight baby was defined as any infant weighed less than 2500 grams. The results indicated that in comparison to the control of just vitamin A supplementation, just folic acid and folic acid-iron-zinc supplements did nothing to increase birthweights when administered to pregnant women. However, folic acid-iron supplements managed to both decrease the frequency of low birthweight babies by 9% (from 43% to 34%) and increase the average birthweight by 37 grams. Moreover, when several micronutrients were administered in combination with vitamin A, the frequency of low birthweight babies decreased by 14% and the average newborn birthweight increased by 64 grams. Although both the folic acid-iron supplements and the multiple micronutrients combination managed to decrease the frequency of low birthweight babies and increase mean birthweight, Sommer and his fellow research partners noted that these treatments only increased birthweight, and head and chest circumference, not birth length.[15]


Book written by Alfred Sommer in 1980 to teach other Ophthalmologist how to do better clinical research

Alfred Sommer has received multiple awards for his research, including the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research (1997),[16] the Danone International Prize for Nutrition (2001),[17] the Dan David Prize[18] (2013), and the Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research[19] among other honors.[10] He has received the Lucien Howe Medal of the American Ophthalmological Society, the Laureate Award of the American Academy of Ophthalmology[20] (2011), and the Warren Alpert Research Prize from Harvard Medical School in 2003. The 2005 PBS documentary Rx for Survival featured Sommer as a "global health champion."[21] Sommer is an elected member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine.

Current research interests[edit]

Sommer’s current research interests include the diagnosis and management of glaucoma, improved child survival and blindness prevention strategies, and micronutrient interventions, in addition to other projects in both epidemiology and ophthalmology.[10]

Sommer Scholars and other Named Honors at JHSPH[edit]

In 2004, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health established a $22 million scholarship program in honor of Dr. Sommer called the Sommer Scholars. The programs aims to "recruit the next generation of public health leaders to devise new, effective interventions to improve global health.".[22] Additionally, the Bloomberg School's Department of Molecular Microbiology is chaired by the "Alfred and Jill Sommer Professor";[23] the "Dana Center of the Wilmer Eye Institute is led by the "Alfred Sommer Professor of Ophthalmology";[24] and the main auditorium of the Bloomberg School is named "Sommer Hall."


  1. ^ a b c Sommer A, Tarwotjo I, Djunaedi E, West KP Jr, Loeden AA, Tilden R, Mele L. Impact of vitamin A supplementation on childhood mortality. A randomised controlled community trial. Lancet 1986; 24: 1169-1173
  2. ^ a b c World Development Report 1993. World Bank, 1993.
  3. ^ Copenhagen Consensus 2008. Accessed on 2009-03-19.
  4. ^ a b c Day, Harry (1980–1990). "Sommer, Alfred - c.1980-1990". The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives. Archived from the original on 1990. Retrieved 2017-04-28. 
  5. ^ Union College Magazine. Spring 2014. Accessed on 2017-05-15.
  6. ^ a b McCollum, Elmer (1980–1990). "Sommer, Alfred - c.1980-1990". The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives. Archived from the original on 1990. Retrieved 2017-04-29. 
  7. ^ Accessed 2017-05-15
  8. ^ Shea, Dennis (May 16, 2005). "Klag Named Dean of Bloomberg School of Public Health". Headlines@Hopkins. JHU Press Releases. Retrieved 10 October 2016. 
  9. ^ "Best Public Health Programs | Top Public Health Schools | US News Best Graduate Schools". Retrieved 2016-10-10. 
  10. ^ a b c d Alfred Sommer Biography, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
  11. ^ Accessed 2017-05-15
  12. ^ JHU Gazette March 11, 2011 Accessed 2017-05-15
  13. ^ Sommer A. Vitamin A deficiency and childhood mortality (Conference at Bellagio). Lancet 1992;339(8797):864.
  14. ^ Klemm, Rolf D. W.; Labrique, Alain B.; Christian, Parul; Rashid, Mahbubur; Shamim, Abu Ahmed; Katz, Joanne; Sommer, Alfred; West, Keith P. (2008-07-01). "Newborn Vitamin A Supplementation Reduced Infant Mortality in Rural Bangladesh". Pediatrics. 122 (1): e242–e250. ISSN 0031-4005. PMID 18595969. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-3448. 
  15. ^ Christian, Parul; Khatry, Subarna K.; Katz, Joanne; Pradhan, Elizabeth K.; LeClerq, Steven C.; Shrestha, Sharada Ram; Adhikari, Ramesh K.; Sommer, Alfred; Keith, P. West (2003-03-15). "Effects of alternative maternal micronutrient supplements on low birth weight in rural Nepal: double blind randomised community trial". BMJ. 326 (7389): 571. ISSN 0959-8138. PMC 151518Freely accessible. PMID 12637400. doi:10.1136/bmj.326.7389.571. 
  16. ^ Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award. Accessed on 2009-03-19
  17. ^ Danone Institute Prize for Nutrition. Accessed on 2009-03-19
  18. ^ Accessed 2017-05-2017
  19. ^ Alfred Sommer - Helen Keller Foundation (with video)
  20. ^ Accessed 2017-05-2015
  21. ^ Rx for Survival: Global Health Champions. Accessed on 2009-03-19.
  22. ^ New Scholarship to Recruit Public Health Leaders of The Future.
  23. ^ Accessed 2017-05-15/
  24. ^ Accessed 2017-05-15