The Medical College of Alabama was established in Mobile in 1859 by Josiah Clark Nod, M.D., and endured an unstable 86-year history. At the turn of the century, the school was reduced to two years of basic science instruction, and moved to the Tuscaloosa campus in an effort to revive the ailing program. Though the two-year school was highly regarded, medical students had to leave the state to complete their medical training. Many never returned. In 1943, the Alabama legislature made necessary financial allocations giving the school four-year status. After fierce political maneuvering from the contending cities - Mobile, Tuscaloosa, and Birmingham - the medical school was moved to Birmingham in 1944 and in 1945, the University of Alabama School of Medicine admitted its first students.
Roy R. Kracke, M.D., a native of Hartselle, Alabama was the Chairman of the Department of Pathology at Emory University in Atlanta, and an international authority on blood diseases. He accepted the Deanship, and in 1946 he persuaded Alston Callahan, M.D., working at the time at the 300-bed Eye Unit of the Army Hospital in Tuscaloosa, to organize the Department of Ophthalmology, and to serve as Chairman.
An integral ingredient in the School's success was the long-established Hillman Hospital that had conducted a charity of clinic for all medical and surgical specialties. This provided the varied patients needed to teach the practice of medicine. An eye clinic supported by the Lions Club of Alabama was one of its features. On this foundation, Drs. Callahan and Kracke worked to develop an ophthalmology program.
Following his eight years of service, Dr. Callahan resigned from the chairmanship to enter full-time practice and to secure funds for construction of the first phase of the independent Eye Foundation Hospital. It was opened for patients in December 1963.
In 1972, The UAB Ophthalmology residency was combined with that of the Eye Foundation Hospital. The joining of these two entities increased the residency-teaching program and added a full-time teaching staff, including a full-time Chair, Ralph Z. Levene, M.D.
Chairs Lanning Kline (1998 to 2011), Roswell Pfister ('74-'81), Alston Callahan ('64-'71), Harold Skalka ('81-'97), and Ralph Levene ('71-'74) have guided the department through nearly 40 years of growth.
In June 1976, Roswell Pfister, M.D. a noted corneal authority was appointed as Chair, and during his tenure the trustees of the Eye Foundation Hospital upgraded the department considerably including purchase of a scanning electron microscope. In 1981, Dr. Pfister resigned to enter private practice, and Harold W. Skalka, M.D., an expert on electrophysiology and ultrasonography of the eye, was appointed as Professor and Chair serving in that capacity for 16 years.
From 1983-1985, under the leadership of Dr. Alston Callahan and the late John M. Harbert III, an Alabama Construction magnate, a research and professional office building with a six-story parking deck was built. This increased the physical space to 300,000 square feet with seven operating rooms, and a 24-hour emergency room and an outpatient surgical center.
In 1990 with generous donations from Angelo Bruno, Allan McDonald, Jamie McWane, Elton B. Stephens, David Hamilton, all Alabama businessmen, and Research to Prevent Blindness Inc., five eminent Ph.D.'s were added to the one Ph.D. already on the faculty of the Department of Ophthalmology.
In June 1998, Lanning B. Kline, M.D., a nationally recognized neuro-ophthalmologist accepted the Chair. The Department was relocated to the 6th floor and the POB of the Callahan Eye Foundation Hospital. The clinical faculty has grown to 20, and the research faculty to 8. The Clinical Research Unit expanded under the leadership of Cynthia Owsley, Ph.D., and the Glaucoma Service, headed by Christopher Girkin, M.D. relocated to the 4th floor. In 2004 Dr. Owsley was appointed Vice Chair for Clinical Research and in 2005 Dr. Judith Kapp was appointed Vice Chair for Basic Research.
In October of 2011, Dr. Lanning B. Kline stepped down as Chairmain of the Department, but remains a full-time faculty member of the Department, maintaining his clinical practice in neuro-ophthalmology. In April 2011, Christopher A. Girkin, MD, MSPH FACS assumed the role of Chairman for the UAB Department of Ophthalmology, as well as the role of Chief Medical Officer for the UAB Callahan Eye Hospital and Director of the UAB Glaucoma Service.
Currently, the residency -training program consists of 15 residents (five in each of the three-year program). These residents receive training in all comprehensive ophthalmology, as well as subspecialties including retinal diseases and surgery; neuro-ophthalmology; cornel disease, uveitis, cataract surgery, medical and surgical treatment of glaucoma; pediatric ophthalmology; oculoplastic surgery; and ophthalmic pathology.