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Jacob M. Ulmer Papers Relating to the promotion and funding of research to prevent blindness 1949-1969
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Biography

Biographical Note

Jacob M. Ulmer was born in Shreve, OH, 19 November 1886 and died in 1972. He received his LLB from Western Reserve University's Franklin Thomas Backus School of Law in 1908. A lawyer by training and profession, cataracts developed in Ulmer's eyes and he began to go blind in 1946. After several operations to remove the cataracts, Ulmer began investigating the state of eye disease research and discovered that over 75% of all the blinding diseases were unknown to science. He decided that something had to be done about the state of opthomological research and since then devoted the rest of his life to the field.

In 1949, Ulmer, along with Al Hirshberg (another layman) and Dr. V. Everett Kinsey (Howe Laboratory of Opthamology, Harvard Medical School) joined forces and created the National Foundation for Eye Research in Washington, D.C. The group immediately began looking for the finances to support their eye research proposals. Several groups came to their aid, most notably the Lasker Foundation. With the personal support of Albert and Mary Lasker and the Lasker Foundation, Ulmer lobbied Congress to create an institute on blindness. In 1950 Public Law 692 was passed, establishing the National Institute for Neurological Diseases and Blindness under the Public Health Service. In 1968, the National Eye Institute became a separate institute.

Ulmer also had a profound affect on the operational structure of NIH itself. After establishing NINDB, Ulmer proposed a revolutionary method of financing medical research. His idea was for NINDB to distribute grant money directly to individual medical schools and research institutes to foster eye research projects. Medical schools were at first sceptical, fearing NIH was trying to take control their activities after making them dependent on the grant money. After much negotiating between the schools and and extensive study performed by NIH's Inter-Council Committee on Institutional Grants, the idea of "block grants" was instituted, whereby grants applicants spelled out who was receiving the funds, who the researchers were, scope of the project, etc., so that when the grant was made the researchers were free of any interference by NIH. This method of encouraging research via institutional grants changed forever how NIH operated and helped foster its own prominence in the scientific world.

Ulmer spent the remainder of his life devoted to educating himself and the world about the treatment of blindness and eye disease. It was mainly through his efforts that physicians changed their focus from simply rehabilitating the blind to seeking out the causes of blindness and developing treatments and cures.