School of Optometry celebrates 50 years of improving vision

UAB’s School of Optometry has been training optometrists and helping patients for 50 years.

This fall, the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry (UABSO) proudly celebrates its 50th anniversary, a tremendous milestone that cements the school’s legacy as one of the premier programs in the nation.

Founded by Henry D. Peters, O.D., the school’s inaugural dean, the first class of optometry students at UABSO began their studies in 1969 in the former Life of Georgia Insurance Building. Peters was the school’s only faculty member in the first year. The school went on to become the first optometry school in the United States to be fully integrated into an academic health center, and the school awarded its first Doctor of Optometry degree in 1973. 

The only optometry program in the state of Alabama, UABSO’s rich history and commitment to serving the state’s patients have helped cement the school’s impressive legacy. 

“What makes the School of Optometry so unique is that we train the next generation of leaders who provide comprehensive, evidence-based eye care, and have faculty and researchers who are committed to discovering new principles of vision science, treatment options, and managing ocular diseases and disorders,” said Kelly Nichols, O.D., Ph.D., dean of the School of Optometry. “We’re committed to continuing to lead the field of academic and clinical optometry, and look forward to seeing the many accomplishments the next 50 years will bring.”

UABSO proudly wears the title of “first” in many categories both in Alabama and nationwide that have positively impacted and cultivated the field of academic and clinical optometry, including:

  • UABSO was the first school or college of optometry in the United States to have an intramural faculty practice, which began operating in 1971. The University Optometric Group was originally located in the school’s teaching clinic before moving into its own facility inUAB Eye Care nearly a decade later. It is now the longest-operating optometry faculty practice in the country.
  • UABSO faculty have published more than 30 textbooks of research. The school was the first in the country to establish a Vision Science Research Center to foster multidisciplinary and collaborative campus research.
  • UABSO was the first O.D. program affiliated with a VA Hospital after a formally approved and funded program began for the clinical training of optometry students and optometric technician students in the Birmingham VA Hospital. This program served as a stimulus for the development of other optometry programs in VA facilities with academic affiliations and is still an active part of the school today. 

Commitment to teaching, community involvement

Since its inception in 1969, UABSO has graduated more than 1,650 students. UAB graduates compose 68 percent of the current licensed and practicing optometrists in Alabama. Several aspects of the school’s training and curriculum set the school apart from others nationwide, and affirm UABSO’s commitment to training the next generation of providers.

These differentiators include:

  • UABSO has classes of no more than 50 students that are embedded within the vast network of academic and clinical resources offered by UAB. Internationally recognized faculty in optometry, vision science and ophthalmology teach students within a state-of-the-art clinical practice, and students have opportunities to join them in research that leads to groundbreaking discoveries in vision science.
  • In addition to offering a Doctor of Optometry degree, UABSO has grown to include graduate degrees in vision science and three dual-degree programs: OD/MBA (the only degree program of its kind in the nation), OD/MPH, and OD/MS. It also offers six affiliated residency programs for additional training in optometry with 11 highly competitive spots, all accredited by the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education.
  • Students receive clinical training at UAB Eye Care, a 34,000-square-foot teaching facility that provides personalized primary eye care, treatment for ocular diseases, low-vision rehabilitation and optical services. Optometry students at UAB provide numerous screenings and comprehensive eye exams in the clinic and across Alabama through community outreach. Students, faculty and residents collectively examine nearly 25,000 patients per year.
  • More than 50 scholarships have been endowed by alumni, faculty, the alumni association, foundations, individuals in the community, companies and professional organizations. These efforts continue and will help attract and assist future students. There have been eight newly endowed scholarships funded since July 2018.

UABSO’s commitment to both its immediate UAB community and Birmingham community is also displayed through a variety of programs and events. For instance, the annual Gift of Sight event — which celebrated five years in 2018 — provides comprehensive eye exams and glasses for low-income or underinsured patients who may otherwise not receive vision care or services throughout the year. Through Gift of Sight, more than 1,000 patients have received free care and glasses.

Additionally, initiatives like BlazerVision, a partnership between UABSO, UAB Athletics and the Department of Ophthalmology, are helping to change how concussions are diagnosed and treated. As part of UAB Athletics’ pre-participation examinations, each student-athlete will receive comprehensive eye care, acute game-time care and state-of-the-art concussion baseline testing, and faculty from the UAB Vestibular Ocular Research Clinic (VORClinic) and UAB Eye Care within UABSO provide preseason, postseason and immediate post-impact exposure concussion testing.

Looking ahead

While 50 years is an impressive milestone, what the school can accomplish in the next 50 years is an exciting prospect for all associated with the school and its successes.  

“It’s really remarkable to celebrate a milestone birthday like 50 years and to look back at the rich heritage that we celebrate as well as the opportunity to look forward to the things we can achieve in the next 50 years,” Nichols shared. “UAB is a young university, and we’re a young School of Optometry, so it’s important to see how far we have come in such a short period of time and how we can be even better moving forward.”