Dr. Irene E. Loewenfeld

Formerly Professor of Ophthalmology 1973-2009

By Peter Strohmeyer & Carmin Smoot

Early Years

Loewenfeld Family

Irene E. Loewenfeld was born in Germany in 1921. With her family (sisters Ann and Eva, parents Charlotte and Philipp), they escaped Hitler’s regime with a short stay in Switzerland, where she attended art school for several years. Ultimately, the family decided to move to New York City, arriving in 1938. This is when she began working in a research lab for Dr. Otto Lowenstein, who was studying the human eye.

In retrospect, I must have been a difficult teenager. My education ended up being spectacularly irregular.”

Dr. Irene Loewenfeld

Irene Loewenfeld in 1961


-someone who was careful, accurate, and good at drawing and measuring

“I was just 18 (1939) when I started to work in that lab. I took my New York Regents examination as an external student and then college courses one after another at New York University and Columbia University while working full time in the lab. In 1948, we transferred the lab to Columbia University’s Eye Institute. I remained in a pupil lab for the rest of my professional life.”

In 1940, Dr. Lowenstein hires a
18-year-old woman, as Irene recalls,
“…who knew little about anything”

Dr. Loewenfeld and Dr. Lowenstein

Dr. Irene Loewenfeld and Dr. Otto Lowenstein (1963)

“In 1955, the University of Bonn decided that Dr. Lowenstein, their former professor in Neuropsychiatry, who as a Jew had been forced to leave his position and his country in 1933, should be formally reinstated. While he was there for this ceremony, he made inquiries into the university rules for foreigners to get a doctorate in natural history from the university. He found that he could be my sponsoring professor and that my period of residency in Bonn could be waived because I could already speak German, but that I would have to personally submit my thesis in Bonn and defend it before a local committee. That thesis, on the mechanisms of reflex dilation of the pupil, was later published in 1958.

Upon returning to New York, I was now “Doctor” Loewenfeld, and it became possible for me to apply for National Institutes of Health (NIH) research support. We received one of the first NIH research grants and took on some research fellows, starting with Drs. Heiichiro Kawabata and Shinji Oono from Japan.”

In 1957,  alongside Dr. Lowenstein, Dr. Loewenfeld
invented a machine they called the
“electronic pupillograph”, which
incorporated infrared technology to
measure and analyze the diameter
of the human pupil.

The Pupil

Magnus opus

From the early 1950s, Dr. Lowenstein had thought of writing a book about the pupil. At first it was to be a summary of our experimental findings, but it soon became clear that a more complete text was needed.”

Dr. Irene Loewenfeld

“Existing summaries were outdated and spread out over many branches of science, in several languages, and filled with controversies.

In 1956, we started making preparations. Dr. Lowenstein would handle the clinical areas, I would concentrate on the basic science aspects, and we would work together on the overlapping areas. By 1964, Dr. Lowenstein had written about 3,000 pages of manuscript for the clinical parts of the book, and we were about to condense and edit those pages when he learned that he was fatally ill. After his death in 1965, I found that as a physiologist, I had difficulty doing the revising and pruning without his advice and clinical judgment. I therefore spent the next seven years reading and analyzing the clinical literature and tracking down the chief controversies to their sources.”

Irene Loewenfeld - index card

Index card with color coded and symbol annotations

“I began writing the final text in 1973, about a year after I followed Robert Jampel, MD, to the Kresge Eye Institute at Wayne State University in Detroit. At that time I hoped to complete the book in two years, but it took much longer. With the help of a grant from the National Library of Medicine, I was able to turn the manuscript over to Wayne State University Press in 1983. Publication was delayed because of administrative changes, so the manuscript was updated in 1986 and again in 1988.

Five hundred copies were printed in 1993, and they were soon sold out. A second edition, with minimal changes and identical pagination, was then published in 1999 by Butterworth-Heinemann.”

I was always proud of being able to work
with Professor Otto Lowenstein.”


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publication date
March 30, 2019