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Charles Schepens, 94, leader in Nazi resistance, pioneer in retina surgery

Dr. Charles Schepens, who worked with the resistance in Belgium and France during World War II, died March 28 at the age of 94.
Dr. Charles Schepens, who worked with the resistance in Belgium and France during World War II, died March 28 at the age of 94. (Globe Staff Photo / Mark Wilson)

Two callings led Charles L. Schepens to greatness, and one nearly kept him from the other.

He risked his life, and those of his wife and young children, to work with the resistance in Belgium and France during World War II, but he sought no honor or recognition. Instead, Dr. Schepens resumed his medical career after the war and became one of the most important ophthalmologists in history.

A few days before Dr. Schepens suffered a massive stroke, the consul general of France presented him with the French Legion of Honor award for smuggling more than 100 people over the Pyrenees from France into Spain during the war -- all the while cloaking himself in an alias so successfully that he fooled not only the Nazis but many of his Basque neighbors.

Dr. Schepens, who was 94 and lived in Nahant, died March 28. Considered the father of modern retina surgery, he developed instruments that helped doctors to more easily diagnose retina problems and to repair them. His groundbreaking work is credited with improving the success rate for surgical retina reattachment from about 40 percent to more than 90 percent in the course of his career.

Still, if the Nazis had not discovered his resistance work in the French town of Mendive, Dr. Schepens might have turned his adopted identity into his life's work. He had breathed life into a moribund lumber mill, using its tramway to smuggle people and documents over the mountains, and he developed a strong attachment to the community and its people.

His daughter Claire Delori of Brussels said that as part of the mill ruse ''he became totally engrossed in the lumber business and was fascinated by everything that concerned trees and the mill and the manufacturing of various wooden products. If the Germans hadn't gotten wind of the operation, he has told me, he might have stayed and dropped ophthalmology and gotten involved in the wood industry."

''It was a wonderful life, you know," he said in a 2004 interview with The Boston Globe.

Born in Mouscron, Belgium, he was the son of a general practitioner. The youngest of six, he had three brothers who all became physicians. His father died when he was 7; Dr. Schepens was brought up by one of his brothers. He was engaged in postdoctoral training and a captain in the Belgian medical corps when Germany invaded his country during World War II.

''The resistance movement -- that was his second calling," his daughter said.

Dr. Schepens worked with the Belgian underground and was arrested twice by the Gestapo, in 1940 and 1942, before fleeing to France and assuming the name Jacques Perot. He moved his family to Mendive near Spain and began his work smuggling people and documents over the Pyrenees.

His wife, meanwhile, kept the children inside most of the time so their accented French wouldn't give away their father's secret work. Then and through their 69 years of marriage, Marie Germaine Schepens -- who was known as Cete -- worked as tirelessly as her husband in a background role, their daughter said.

''My mother was a saint," she said.

The Gestapo found out about the lumber mill's covert operation, and Dr. Schepens fled again. The family soon followed, and they ended up in London, where Dr. Schepens had completed some initial medical training. There, Dr. Schepens made his first significant breakthrough, developing a hands-free device to improve diagnostic work.

''The instrument that he's most famous for is the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope," said Dr. Michael Gilmore, president and chief executive of the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston. ''That's an apparatus that a physician wears on his head and looks through the lens into your eye to see the retina. It gives a stereoscopic view of the retina and allows the physician to diagnose the retina."

The original device, developed in England, is now part of the Smithsonian collection.

Because little research money was available in war-ravaged Europe, Dr. Schepens visited the United States and found a home with Harvard Medical School. He founded the retina service at the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary in 1947 and pioneered the retina specialty. He was a professor until 1978, when he became clinical professor emeritus of ophthalmology.

In 1950, Dr. Schepens created a retina foundation that eventually became two entities: Schepens Retina Associates Foundation and Schepens Eye Research Institute, the largest independent research institute for ophthalmology in the world. He also published more than 360 papers -- double to triple the output of a very productive physician, said Gilmore.

Alone or with associates, Dr. Schepens developed several other surgical and diagnostic instruments, including microscissors for surgery on the vitreous -- the clear gel in the middle of the eye that sometimes sticks to the retina.

Living on Beacon Hill and in Nahant, Dr. Schepens ''was always very athletic," his daughter said. ''Woodcutting was always one of his favorite sports. He always cut all the wood for the house. He was a swimmer, a walker; he and my mother walked forever."

And he kept working. At 94, Gilmore said, Dr. Schepens ''was still a very astute diagnostician. His mind was still razor sharp and his insights were unparalleled."

As were his contributions in a French village in 1943. At a March 21 ceremony in Cambridge, the consul general said Dr. Schepens ''in effect helped France go through one of the most painful periods of its history and helped to write, along with your friends in the Belgian resistance, a glorious and heroic page in the fight against the Nazi occupier."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Schepens leaves a son, Luc of Southborough; two daughters, Bernadette Butler of Nahant and Catherine Rojas of Petaluma, Calif.; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. June 24 in Harvard's Memorial Church.

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