Obituary: Joseph F. Novak / Ophthalmologist brought eye safety to steel mills
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Joseph F. Novak, who cared for the eyes of civic titans and steel workers and led important safety changes to stem industrial eye accidents, died Tuesday of natural causes. The Ligonier man was 97.
While he came to be renown as an opthalmologist, the key to Dr. Novak's professional story was a leg. In the late 1930s he injured his left calf while playing tennis with other interns at Magee Hospital in Oakland, leaving the budding neurologist with painful varicose veins. A few years later he would find it difficult to walk, let alone stand, as a surgeon must, while posted to Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C., during World War II.
He was honorably discharged from the Army in 1943 and faced a crossroads in the path he had been following since he was a teenager, eventually turning toward ophthalmology. "That way he could sit and operate, that's what he always said," his daughter Anne Wayne recalled.
By 1947 he would be appointed to the Eye & Ear Hospital of Pittsburgh, and over following decades helped it grow into the Eye & Ear Institute, housing the departments of ophthalmology and otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC Eye Center and the University Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists of UPMC.
He built a private practice caring for the eyes of patients as diverse as Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence, retailer Edgar Kaufmann, financier Richard King Mellon and his family, and scores of steel workers and their families.
Dr. Novak was seeing up to 400 workers a month from U.S. Steel plants, suffering from injuries that could cost them their eyes. Over two years in the early 1950s he studied nearly 300 jobs being performed at its Duquesne Works and came up with an eye protection program. To get management and unions to agree, he bolstered it with an economic argument: in 1953, counting the hours lost by eye injuries they were costing themselves at least $250,000 in production and wages.
The argument worked. With workers required to use protective eyeglasses he designed with shields on the side, within five years disabling and other eye injuries were reduced at Duquesne Works by 60 percent. U.S. Steel instituted mandatory eye protection in all its plants the next year and from 1960 through 1970 it reduced disabling eye injuries by 81 percent. In 1980, according to a report by the doctor, there were no such injuries in any U.S. Steel plant.
"He was on the cutting edge of industrial medicine," said Albert Biglan, a former colleague and retired pediatric opthalmologist.
"His work in that area set the standard nationally for the way that safety eye protection is used in industry in the United States," said Lawton Snyder, executive director of the Eye & Ear Foundation, the institute's fundraising arm. "Instances of injury to the eye in the workplace are all but non-existent and a lot of that is because of Joe Novak."
A fourth-generation Pitts- burgher, Dr. Novak was the youngest of three children brought up by the late John and Gertrude Novak on Stratford Avenue in Friendship. He started and finished at Peabody High School early, graduating second in his class in 1931 at age 15. Inspired by his family doctor, he entered the Pitt School of Medicine while still in his junior year at Pitt, completing his undergraduate studies in 1935 and his medical degree in 1938.
Around then he suffered the leg injury that would lead him to ophthalmology. As he trained on this branch of medicine, he also learned to look to his influential patients for fundraising help with the Eye & Ear Hospital. One was Connie Mellon, R.K. Mellon's wife and the longtime president of her husband's foundation. Dr. Novak got her to award hospital departments $300,000 during a time in the late 1960s, when all foundation giving to Pitt was at a standstill due to university financial woes, and another $1.5 million grant in 1973. The latter gift was critical in getting the department of otolaryngology -- treating the ears, nose and throat -- off the ground.
Dr. Novak and his late wife Carolyn, whom he married in 1944, raised their children in Mt. Lebanon but in the 1960s bought a weekend cottage in Ligonier, where Mr. and Mrs. Mellon would be among their earliest visitors. Dr. Novak retired in 1993 and largely resettled there.
In recognition of his work on industrial eye safety, he won an Outstanding Humanitarian Service Award from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, which is awarded to just one of 25,000 opthalmologists every year.
In addition to his daughter, Anne, of Burgettstown, he is survived by his wife, Eve; daughter Carolyn, of Pittsburgh; son John, of Carnegie; stepchildren Ronald Hambrecht and Chris Spurgeon; and four grandchildren.
Friends will be received from 1 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. today at Laughlin Memorial Chapel, 222 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Bernard Catholic Church, 311 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon.
Memorial donations may be made to the Eye & Ear Foundation, Suite 251, 203 Lothrop St., Pittsburgh 15213.
First Published January 27, 2013 12:00 am