The Salus community is deeply saddened by the recent passing of alumnus Alden Norman Haffner, OD ’52, PhD, FAAO. There is no individual in the history of the profession of optometry who has had the impact on public health policy and optometry than Dr. Haffner. In many ways, the evolution of the profession of optometry has paralleled the leadership and the message that he provided to all segments of the profession – from the student in the classroom to the leadership with organized optometry. He brought the public health imperative to a fledgling profession at a time when it was defining its role in the healthcare landscape.
Considered a visionary by many for his efforts on behalf of the profession, Dr. Haffner was a trailblazer. He has been referred to as a “legend of optometry,” and was inducted into the American Optometric Association’s Optometry Hall of Fame. Without question, the scope of today’s practice of optometry can be attributed in great measure to his efforts. For more than six decades, Dr. Haffner was a fierce advocate for the advancement of public health and its integration into the profession of optometry and throughout the healthcare system.
In his letter to the Salus community announcing the death of Dr. Haffner, President Michael H. Mittelman, OD ’80, MPH, spoke of his first meeting with Dr. Haffner in the late '70s, when he came to speak to Dr. Mittelman’s first-year optometry public health class at Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO). “He was larger than life,” recalled Dr. Mittelman. “This one talk, this one interaction with this amazing man, left me with the burning desire to embrace what he was talking about - that optometry was a key and essential part of the country's public health system.”
L-R: Drs. Lewis, Di Stefano, Haffner and Mittelman
A teacher, scholar, administrator, author and deeply committed public health champion, Dr. Haffner was a progressive leader, inspiring students and colleagues across the nation. He also was a renowned national and international lecturer whose students and audiences appreciated the information delivered with his strong New York accent and broad hand gestures.
For more than six decades, Dr. Haffner was a fierce advocate for the advancement of public health and its integration into the profession of optometry and throughout the healthcare system. A former PCO faculty member, Dr. Haffner was an early leader in public health policy and education. In 1966, he developed and taught the first semester-long course in public health at PCO. That course became the foundation for public health curricula and its inclusion in all schools of optometry as well as the National Board of Examiners in Optometry examination.
In 2010, the University appointed Dr. Haffner the Distinguished Chair of its new Master of Public Health (MPH) degree program and created the Haffner Legacy Fund to support public health scholarships for optometry students in the MPH program. Founding director of the University’s Public Health programs, Anthony F. Di Stefano, OD ’73, MEd, MPH, was a student in those early PCO public health classes. He noted, “It was through Dr. Haffner’s passion and insights that optometrists like me pursued public health careers.”
Immediate past president of Salus, Thomas L. Lewis OD’70, PhD, said of his teacher, mentor and advisor, “Norman Haffner was a thought leader for decades in the profession. Forty years ago he envisioned where optometry is today, and his many contributions to optometry are inestimable.”
Dr. Haffner was never satisfied with the status quo, or one to shy away from a debate, especially when it came to optometry. He was a participant at the famous January 1968 “LaGuardia Meeting,” a clandestine meeting of 15 optometrists which took place in a LaGuardia Airport hotel room and changed the course of the profession of optometry.
He felt strongly that optometry had not yet realized its full potential. Dr. Haffner pushed hard to rally those around him to move towards increasing the scope of practice beyond diagnostic and therapeutic eye care to one with a more holistic approach, which would include the treatment and management of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and other related disorders. He thought this was good not only for public health, but for the profession as well.
Dr. Haffner was a leader in obtaining a charter for the establishment of the State College of Optometry under the auspices of the State University of New York (SUNY). In 1971, he became the first dean and president of SUNY College of Optometry and an early leader in the movement to change optometry from a vision care to a healthcare profession. After his tenure as president of SUNY College of Optometry, Dr. Haffner was appointed vice chancellor for Research, Graduate Studies and Professional Programs for the entire State University of New York.
Dr. Mittelman said, “Dr. Haffner’s influence on all of us made us better thinkers, innovators, activists and professionals. His influence on our profession left a lasting mark on the evolution of optometry and its interaction with today's American healthcare system.” He added, “Whether you knew Dr. Haffner or not, we all owe him a great debt of gratitude, as optometry would not be the profession we know today if he was not there to guide and influence its growth.”
His awards were many and well-deserved. The offices he held spoke to the depth of his commitment to optometry and public health and included his role as founding chair of the American Academy of Optometry’s Section on Public Health and Environmental Optometry, a position held for 23 years; the presidencies of the Public Health Association of New York and the Herman Biggs Society, and his work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Over the course of his long and distinguished career, Dr. Haffner not only experienced many changes in the practice of optometry, he was, in fact, the catalyst for many of those changes. It is to be hoped – and Dr. Haffner would expect – that his friends, colleagues and former students not mourn him, but continue his groundbreaking work in optometry and public health. There could be no more fitting memorial.
Dr. Haffner with fellow '52 classmates