in the Field of Blindness and Visual Impairment
Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita
Born: 4/4/1934 - Died: 11.20.2006
SHOREWOOD HILLS, WISCONSIN - Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, 72, was born fighting for his life on April 4, 1934, and lived his life in a powerful, determined and loving manner from that moment on. He passed away peacefully at home in his sleep on Monday, November 20, 2006. His love of life, his intellectual fervor and his shining tender heart will live on through all those who were lucky to have been a part of his unique and wonderful time on this earth. Born to Anne Hyman and Pedro (Pere) Bach-y-Rita, Paul gained his iconoclastic spirit and amazing philosophy from his free-willed parents who provided him with the eclectic upbringing that cemented his open mind. While his many accomplishments far exceed what can be mentioned, his colleague, Arthur Janpolsky, MD, a founder of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, eloquently expressed, "Paul was nothing short of amazing in his panorama of scientific interest, and his vision of science. He was far ahead of his time. He well knew what path he wanted to follow in his professional and research life, and Paul made very, very sure that he went down his own chosen path. Only once in a lifetime does such a man like Paul emerge in his dual role. Ideas sparkling in every direction from his brain, unique and innovative, far ahead of his time. Paul is perhaps best described as being indescribable just incredible. We all are better for having known his largeness of spirit, the lessons he taught us all. And the seeds he planted in many scientific gardens will benefit scores of people now, and in the future, whom he, nor we, will never know." Paul was first introduced to science when he studied at the Bronx High School of Science, from which he graduated at age 15. He completed his college degree at Mexico City College (now the University of the Americas in Puebla) and began Medical School at the UNAM (Universidad Autonoma de Mexico) at age 17. Paul's adventurous spirit always played a large role in his life and led him to the next step. Not only did Paul hitchhike to and from Mexico City and New York while a student, he even decided to attend medical school on a dare. He eventually dropped out of medical school and embarked on a series of experiences that would shape his career in the future.During his year away from medical school, Paul worked as a salmon and shrimp fisherman, on a Boeing assembly line alongside many disabled colleagues, and was trained as a masseur for Florida's tourist industry. During training, he was then hired to teach anatomy and physiology to blind veterans in the massage program. The impact of these experiences convinced him to go back to medical school. He learned so much about blind people while working with them that he worked with them from that point on. After medical school, he was the first and only doctor in Tilzaptla, Morelos, Mexico, a village that had no roads or electricity, before taking a job at the Smith-Kettlewell Institute of Visual Sciences in San Francisco. A full professor at age 37, his career took another pivotal change in direction after his father suffered a major stroke. He was inspired by his fathers miraculous recovery after his brother George defied conventional wisdom that would have condemned his father to a nursing home, by creating a rehab program that led to his full recovery. His recovery was so immense that he was able to return to his professorship and died at 72 from a heart attack, while hiking at 9,000 feet in Columbia. This led Paul to trade his established and promising career in the field of eye movements, and complete a residency in rehabilitation medicine at the Stanford Santa Clara Medical School to study people like his dad. He was then recruited to UW-Madison as Chair of the Rehab program in 1983. Because of Paul's realization that his love for research surpassed his love for administration, he decided it was time to step down and focus mainly on his research. He was able to do this as a professor at UW Medical school, Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation Medicine and the UW-Madison Engineering School, Department of Biomedical Engineering, while taking on many projects and collaborations around the world; including at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Universit Sorbonne VI in Paris, and UAEM in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He realized that the findings he had been working on since 1962 were being validated by other researchers: the existence of non-synaptic diffusion neurotransmission (NDN) as a complementary mechanism of information transmission, that may play multiple roles in the brain, including in normal and abnormal activity, brain plasticity and drug actions was becoming accepted. One of his latest accomplishments, Paul founded Wicab Corporation in 1998, named in honor of his beloved wife, Esther's family. The CEO of Wicab, Robert Beckman, wanted to share, "One of Paul's favorite expressions was 'we see with our brain, not with our eyes.' And he was able to harness that concept so that totally blind subjects have recently been seen navigating hallways and even shooting baskets-seeing with their brain, with an assist from the Brain Port. All Wicab employees salute Paul today for his visionary leadership. We recognize Paul as the father of sensory substitution and brain plasticity, now commonly accepted concepts, but novel ideas when Paul first conceived of them in the 1960's.
Truly, Paul was one of those rare individuals that see things as they might be and ask, why not?" His strength and dignity to the last breath and his ability to take what came his way with an ever-present positive view remained throughout his tremendous battle with cancer. His fierce determination gave us the privilege of enjoying his presence for these three wonderful years that were not thought to be possible. Just as Paul took what the world offered him and treasured every person, event and experience in his life, we will continue to live under the creative, loving and amazing influences Paul has spread throughout his lifetime. He is survived by his daughters, Jacqueline and Carol; their mother, Eileen; his wife, Esther; their two children, Laura and Andrea; his brother, George and his wife, Marcia; their children, David, Anna, and Peter; his sister, Joan; and her sons, Peter, Paul and Andy. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the family, who will be establishing a fund in Paul's name so that children may benefit from the application of his neuro-rehabilitation concepts.