By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun
4:35 PM EDT, October 17, 2013
Billionaire Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens has vision.
It's 20/40. And the 85-year-old, who suffers from macular degeneration, wants to thank Johns Hopkins' Wilmer Eye Institute with a $20 million gift, among the largest ever for the program.
Pickens, the outspoken founder of Mesa Petroleum, known for his conservative politics and support of alternative energy, has also given millions to hospitals around the nation. Wilmer has already received about $8 million from him and has named its five-story atrium for Pickens.
"I'm a patient at the Wilmer Eye Institute, and I've had great success," he said before a luncheon Thursday in his honor. "It makes me feel great, having my sight."
Pickens told the crowd that he brought his father to Wilmer after striking up a friendship 30 years ago with fellow Oklahoman Dr. Walter Stark, an ophthalmologist and now occupant of a Pickens-endowed chair at Hopkins. Pickens endowed that $2 million professorship in 2005 and contributed $6 million to the construction of the building on Hopkins' East Baltimore campus in 2009.
His father's sight could not be saved, and he went blind at 80. But because of advancements in the last decade, Pickens has retained his vision. He's been coming to the Baltimore campus for 20 years and still visits monthly for injections.
Such treatments help prevent blindness in 90 percent of macular degeneration cases, said Dr. Neil M. Bressler, director of Wilmer's Retina Division.
Pickens said he wants his latest gift to be used for a scholars program aimed at finding treatments for other eye conditions. The recipients would use the money for innovative research that doesn't typically receive government funding.
The money will be included in Pickens' estate, and the institute will receive it when he dies.
The gift, while large for the institute, isn't among the top donations to the university and hospital. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has given by far the most, with gifts totaling $1.1 billion.
But officials said it will advance the field of eye medicine, and potentially generate treatments in other areas.
"What this gift will do is allow us to scour the globe, not just the United States, to find the best and brightest young minds, bring them here as Boone Pickens Scholars," said Dr. Peter McDonnell, director of the institute.
He said the money will "allow them to explore that brilliant idea that, if it pans out, is going to be a game changer."
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