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Tribute to Niels Ehlers

by Jesper Hjortdal in the name of all the EEBA Presidents, past and present

Professor Niels Ehlers MD, who was one of the founders of the European Eye Bank Association, passed away on 17 July 2016 after a long illness at the age of 78 years.

Niels Ehlers had already finished his medical studies at The University of Copenhagen at the age of 24 and three years later he completed his doctoral thesis on the pre-corneal tear film. In 1968 he moved to Aarhus and in 1975 became Professor of Ophthalmology at Aarhus University and Head of the Department.

Niels Ehlers rendered many important contributions to Ophthalmology, including demonstrating how applanation tonometry depends on corneal thickness, building the national centre for treatment of retinoblastoma and especially the development of the Danish Cornea Bank in Aarhus.

The first corneal transplantation in Aarhus was performed on 27 August 1968 and very soon after, Niels Ehlers took over as the only corneal transplant surgeon. Donor tissue was procured “fresh” from patients who had died at the nearby neurosurgical department. At that time corneal transplantation was performed a few hours after retrieval and transplantations often took place during evenings and weekends.

In 1973 Doughman from Minnesota, USA formulated the first studies of corneas stored in tissue culture medium for up to four weeks, and in 1976 the first paper on the clinical use of organ cultured corneas for keratoplasty was published. Niels Ehlers was very inspired by these studies and Steffen Sperling was hired as a research assistant to implement the technique in Aarhus. Steffen Sperling visited the lab in Minnesota, learned the technique and published in 1978 the first studies of organ cultured corneas stored in Aarhus. Organ culture had come to Europe!

In 1978, a real cornea bank based on the storage of donor corneas in organ culture at 31 degrees Celsius was established in Aarhus. In the following years the collected donor corneas were used for transplantation in the eye department in Aarhus, but also sent to the many other Danish eye departments where keratoplasties were performed.  

During the 1980s the cornea bank in Aarhus was regularly visited by colleagues from several European countries, which also wanted to implement organ cultivation of donor corneas. This mutual interest in cornea banking led Niels Ehlers in January 1989 to invite around 15 colleagues for a meeting in Aarhus. The meeting was such a success that, as a result, the European Eye Bank Association (EEBA) was founded. Already at the second meeting of EEBA, Niels Ehlers was named "President" and he kept this appointed position with great contentment for many years until it was realised that a more formal structure for EEBA was necessary. In 2004 Niels Ehlers was appointed as an Honorary Member of the Association.

The “EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND COUNCIL DIRECTIVE 2004/23 / EC of 31 March 2004 on setting standards of quality and safety for the donation, procurement, testing, processing, preservation, storage and distribution of human tissues and cells” was enacted into Danish legislation in 2006 with effect from April 2007. Niels Ehlers quickly realized that there was a need to "reinvent" the Danish Cornea Bank: The premises should be larger and meet laboratory standards and "standard operating procedures" had to be implemented. A scientist was hired as "Technical Manager" and in a short time the extensive formal modernization of the bank had been implemented and approved by the national competent authorities. Over the succeeding years numerous cooperation agreements with pathological institutes all over Denmark were signed and the frequency of donations slowly started to rise.

In 2008, Niels Ehlers retired after 40 years of activity at the Department of Ophthalmology in Aarhus and after 30 years as “bank director”. Niels Ehlers spend his retirement with his wife Lise, often at their cosy house in Skagen at the most northern point in Denmark, and was most happy when surrounded by their three children and grandchildren. His retirement was imprinted by a suboptimal health and when calling Niels Ehlers on the phone, he typically replied that it “was more fun 30 years ago”. He never, however, missed to ask how the “bank” was running.      

Niels Ehlers will be remembered as a true gentleman, for his exceptionally bright mind and way of academic thinking, his enthusiasm for scientific arguments, but also for his dislike of formalism and too regulated structures.

We honour his memory and we all thank him greatly for what he gave to the world of eye banking, to his family, colleagues and friends.

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