Remembering Peter Gouras, M.D.

Peter Gouras, M.D., Professor of Ophthalmology in the Department of Ophthalmology of the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, died on January 8, 2021. He was 90 years old. Dr. Gouras, an exceptional clinician-scientist, was a true pioneer in areas of retinal electrophysiology, color vision, and retinal pigment cell transplantation, moving the fields forward by constantly introducing original ideas and experiments.


Dr. Gouras was born in 1930 in Brooklyn, NY. He moved to Baltimore, MD, to attend Johns Hopkins University, which he graduated in three years summa cum laude. He then attended medical school there, followed by a surgical internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital.


His illustrious career in clinical and basic science of ophthalmology began at the Neurosurgical Division at the National Institutes of Health in 1957. After a year of fellowship at Cambridge University to study electrophysiology of retina, he was recruited to the Ophthalmology Branch of NIH headed by Ludwig von Sallmann in 1960, and later served as the chief of Neurophysiology Section at the National Eye Institute from 1970 to 1978.


At NIH, he introduced Ganzfeld stimulation and computer averaging in electroretinography to greatly improve monitoring of patient retina functions. He also developed methods to examine four photoreceptor mechanisms separately with the electroretinography. This led to discoveries of novel retinal degenerations such as the supernormal S-cone syndrome, nyctalopia, and cone dystrophy with supernormal rod response. The technique was helpful in objective monitoring of Oguchi disease and also demonstrating improved ERG responses following a vitamin A therapy of eyes with Bassen-Kornzweig syndrome.


In 1978, he moved back to New York to become Professor of Ophthalmology at the Department of Ophthalmology at Columbia University, where he stayed for over 40 years until his death. At Columbia, he started a cell biology laboratory where he demonstrated that the retinal pigment epithelium as well as Muller cells can isomerize all-trans to 11-cis retinol, which revolutionized the understanding of how cone photoreceptors adapt to light.


Taking advantage of his success with culturing RPE and the RCS rat model, his group demonstrated that RPE can be transplanted, thereby preventing retinal degeneration. This was the first demonstration that transplantation was a viable method to treat degenerative conditions of the central nervous system. These series of experiments laid the foundation to the recent advances with retinal transplantation with stem cell technology. His expertise with transplant surgery also led to collaborations with scientists at Columbia using viral vectors for gene therapy that could cure monogenic diseases of the retina, such as Stargardt disease. Dr. Gouras’ latest works were with rhesus monkeys, which he showed to be the only true animal model of AMD.


Dr. Gouras also continued to work on electrophysiology of retina at Columbia, employing a single cell recording with a mouse model, to investigate mechanisms of color vision and other visual information processing in the visual cortex. Between his scientific endeavors, he enjoyed throwing lab parties. He played accordion, sang folk songs, once hired a professional Irish dancer to entertain his lab on a St Patrick’s day, and prepared Christmas presents for members of his and neighboring labs and handed them out energetically with a big grin.


Dr. Gouras had an unmatched talent in getting things done. Seemingly impossible tasks were suddenly doable in his hands, assisted by creative thinking, intelligent planning, infectious enthusiasm, and action. He was vocal about his intention to continue research until the very end, which he effectively accomplished. Most recently, he offered opinions and advises to young ophthalmologists with difficult ERG cases. He simultaneously devoted much of his time tinkering new electrophysiology experiments with mouse brain and analyzing electron micrographs of the retina for novel subcellular structures while confined due to COVID-19.


Many students and fellows of Dr. Gouras became prominent scientists themselves, including Eliot Berson (Harvard), Eberhart Zrenner (Tubingen), Gunther Niemeyer (Zurich), Helga Kolb (Utah), Astrid Kafka (Vienna), Daniel Salchow (Berlin), Cynthia Mackay (Columbia), Bjorn Ekesten (Upsala, Sweden), Shuichi Yamamoto (Chiba, Japan), Chi-Chun Lai (Taoyuan, Taiwan), Yoahua Sheng (Shanghai), Stephen Tsang (Columbia), and many others.


Dr. Gouras is a legend in ophthalmology who kept innovating for 60 years. He was an original thinker, often going against the established beliefs. He promoted an idea with passion when the data backed him up, and relented when the data contradicted his ideas. He was a brilliant example of a consummate scientist with burning passion in pursuit of truth, a vanishing breed.