By all accounts, Aida de Acosta Root Breckinridge was a trailblazer. At age 19, she became the first woman to pilot a motorized aircraft when she flew a dirigible solo over Paris. In 1922, when Breckinridge developed glaucoma, she sought the care of esteemed ophthalmologist William Holland Wilmer, called “the greatest eye surgeon the U.S. has ever had” by Time magazine. Though Breckinridge had lost sight in one eye, Dr. Wilmer was able to save her other eye.
Inspired by the care she received, Breckinridge organized a fundraising campaign that resulted in $3 million to fund the establishment in 1925 of The Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute at Johns Hopkins University. It was a teaching and research center, and the first eye institute in the country.
Today the Wilmer Eye Institute is the world’s largest ophthalmology institute. It has educated thousands of students, many of whom have gone on to become trailblazing leaders in the field. The institute is universally recognized as a research powerhouse, recently named the number one ophthalmology program in the country in a survey of other ophthalmology program directors. Most importantly, it has helped protect and preserve the eye health of millions of people.
Wilmer Director Peter J. McDonnell, M.D., calls Breckinridge a visionary whose energy and determination helped make the Wilmer Eye Institute a reality. “After Dr. Wilmer performed surgery to save Mrs. Breckinridge’s vision and the nurses at the hospital informed her that there would be no one to carry on Dr. Wilmer’s work, she took it upon herself to reach out to his grateful patients and raise the funds required to establish the institute that bears Dr. Wilmer’s name and would allow him to train the next generation of leaders in ophthalmology,” McDonnell says. Wilmer did just that, establishing an institute that integrated patient care, teaching and research under one roof.
Breckinridge’s philanthropic spirit lives on at Wilmer today through the advocacy of people who, like her, share a passion for helping the blind and visually impaired, and whose contributions — monetary or otherwise — help support vital research, further education, and purchase equipment and even eyeglasses for those in need.
To honor those who embody the spirit of Breckinridge, in 2012 McDonnell established the Aida de Acosta Root Breckinridge Award. “One hundred years ago, when Mrs. Breckinridge achieved the goal of establishing the Wilmer Eye Institute, the contributions of women were often underappreciated and underrecognized,” McDonnell says. “We thought there would be no more meaningful a way to honor her memory than to give the award to women who today are contributing their time and talents to further Wilmer’s mission,” he says.
McDonnell presented the inaugural Aida de Acosta Root Breckinridge Award to Norma Tiefel, who has served for decades as a member of the Wilmer Board of Governors, “providing her wise counsel to Wilmer’s directors, as well as her generous philanthropy,” McDonnell says.
In 2014, Sandra Forsythe received the award “for her tireless advocacy for the blind and visually impaired, both here at Wilmer and in her hometown of Chicago.” In presenting the award, McDonnell cited the work of Forsythe and her husband, Rick, in, among other efforts, supporting the design and construction of The Robert H. and Clarice Smith Building, calling it the most modern ophthalmic surgical and research facility in the world.
Subsequent award recipients include Meredith B. Cross, for her work “as a vocal advocate for individuals suffering from vision loss related to immune system disorders, and an ardent supporter of Wilmer’s program for caring for this population,” and, in 2022, Mary Bartkus.
“Mary Bartkus has been a great partner of Wilmer’s Glaucoma Division for many years, helping to foster the career development of our junior faculty who will be tomorrow’s leaders in that specialty,” McDonnell says, adding that she has been a resource and role model for Wilmer’s emerging women leaders.
One can only imagine the satisfaction with which Breckinridge would view the Wilmer Eye Institute of today — and the enormous contributions of the women who continue to carry out a legacy she established nearly a century ago.