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Prominent Russians: Svyatoslav Fyodorov

August 8, 1927 – June 2, 2000

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“He was a visionary. He was always working, always thinking, always trying to make things better.” - Robert H. Marmer, MD

Throughout his life, Svyatoslav Fyodorov had done just that, helping hundreds of thousands of people through his pioneering eye surgery. His development of radial keratotomy in the 1970s allowed thousands of people with poor vision to throw away their glasses. The procedure, which preceded laser surgery, involves making radial slices in the cornea, the clear tissue that forms a protective layer over the eye. As the cuts heal the cornea contracts and vision improves. Fyodorov's technique was exported around the world.

“We must make people's lives better, so that they can see well, so that they will be comfortable in this clinic, in Tambov, so that they can live well all over our country. This is the goal that unites all of us. This is a wonderful goal,” he said in a speech, just hours before his death.

In the 1960s, he pioneered a revolutionary operation to implant artificial lenses in patients after cataract operations. The procedure was condemned by Soviet authorities as “anti-physiological.”

“I had to struggle for this matter. I was opposed by all the professors in Russia and the Soviet Union. I broke medical canons by introducing new technology and those who violate canons are revolutionaries, pioneers. If they emerge victorious, they become popular,” he said in an interview.

In 1986, Fyodorov built a large eye hospital in Moscow and went on to open dozens of clinics around the country. He also founded clinics outside Russia, including an eye treatment center on a ship. Thousands of patients began to flock to his clinics. By 1989, Fortune magazine was tipping him as perestroika's first millionaire. His institute for ophthalmic microsurgery had become a $75-million-a-year business that was growing 30% annually. From a Moscow office crammed with electronic gear, he presided over nearly 5,000 employees in nine treatment centers across the Soviet Union and two factories that turned out glasses and surgical instruments. His clinics operated on 220,000 people annually, 5,500 of them foreigners.

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Svyatoslav Fyodorov was born in the town of Proskurovo (now Khmelnitsky) in Ukraine into the family of a Red Army Division Commander. When Svyatoslav was 11, his father, a cavalry general, was whisked off to a Siberian prison camp in one of Stalin's purges, where he stayed for 17 years. Fyodorov was convinced his father had been killed. In 1950, while finishing medical studies in Rostov, he learned that his father had been in a prison camp in Siberia since the purge. Fyodorov said he would never forget their reunion five years later. “His face was sad. When a man has not laughed for a long time, he can only imitate a smile.” After graduating from high school in 1943, Svyatoslav was admitted to the Preparatory Aviation School in Yerevan. He was, however, unable to finish the school because he lost his foot in an accident in 1945. He graduated from the Medical Institute in Rostov-on-Don in 1952. He defended his PhD in medicine in 1958 and his Doctoral Dissertation in 1967.

Fyodorov worked as a doctor in the village of Veshenskaya, Rostov Region, and in the town of Lysva, Sverdlovsk Region. He completed a post-graduate course at the Rostov-on-Don Medical Institute in 1957. Since 1958 he worked as the Head of the Clinical Department at the Cheboksary Branch of the State Institute of Eye Diseases named after Helmholz. In 1960 he developed an artificial crystalline lens and carried out the first-ever operation to implant an artificial lens. Fyodorov was dismissed from his job over a conflict with the director of the branch and his studies were declared to be unscientific. He was reinstated in his job following a publication about him in the newspaper Izvestia. In 1961-1967 he worked in Archangelsk as Head of the Eye Disease Chair at the Medical Institute.

In 1967 he was transferred to Moscow and appointed Head of the Chair of Eye Diseases and the Laboratory for the Implantation of Artificial Lenses at the 3rd Moscow Medical Institute. In 1969 he started research into the implantation of artificial cornea. In 1973, for the first time in history, he developed and carried out an operation to treat glaucoma at an early stage.

In 1974 Fyodorov's laboratory branched out from the Institute as the Research Laboratory of Experimental and Clinical Eye Surgery under the Ministry of Health. That same year Fyodorov started carrying out operations to treat and correct myopia by controlled cuts of the cornea according to the method he developed. The method has subsequently been widely used in Fyodorov's clinics and its branches as well as abroad. More than three million such operations have been carried out in the world.

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In 1979 Fyodorov was appointed Director of the Eye Microsurgery Institute set up in succession to the laboratory. As director he introduced a number of innovations such as the Medical Surgical Conveyor (a procedure in which the operation is conducted by several surgeons each doing a certain part, with the main part carried out by the most experienced surgeon), mobile operation theaters on wheels, to name just a few. He has more than 180 inventions to his name.

Branches of Fyodorov’s clinics can be found all over the country and abroad (in Italy, Poland, Germany, Spain, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates). He converted a sea-going vessel, the “Peter I,” into an eye clinic, which sails the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

His hobbies included horse riding, swimming and hunting. Fyodorov opened a riding club with 150 horses some 60 miles from Moscow. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday he pulled on his boots, slipped into a denim jacket, and galloped away. He was married and had four daughters: Irina is an eye surgeon and a PhD in medicine, Yulia is an eye surgeon with a medical degree, Olga is completing her post-graduate clinical course on ophthalmology and Elina is a Spanish linguist, a graduate of the Moscow University Philological Department.

In 1991, Fyodorov turned down an offer from Boris Yeltsin to become a prime minister. By 1992, he was co-chairman of the Party of Economic Freedom, an early incarnation of the many liberal parties that have failed so far to make a large impact on Russia's political scene. He ran for president in 1996 and received barely one percent of the national vote.

Dr. Fyodorov was returning from a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of one of his eye microsurgery clinics in Tambov, 250 miles southeast of Moscow when the helicopter he was in crashed on the outskirts of Moscow, killing all four people aboard. The 72-year-old surgeon had received his helicopter license, although he was not flying the craft at the time.

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