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Frederick N. Griffith, expert in corneal transplantation who founded Maryland Eye Bank, dies

Frederick N. Griffith promoted the establishment of eye banks internationally.
Frederick N. Griffith promoted the establishment of eye banks internationally.

Frederick N. Griffith, a social worker who became an expert in corneal transplantation and in the mid-1960s and established the Maryland Eye Bank, died Jan. 15 from post-polio syndrome at the Broadmead Retirement Community in Hunt Valley. The former Lutherville resident was 88.

“Frederick was a great man and I loved him,” said Mahmood Farazdaghi, a past president of the International Federation of Eye Banks and former senior Tissue Banks International director of international operations. “He was both exceptional and extraordinary and a person you’d like to have a beer or glass of wine with. He was very likable and charismatic.”

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Frederick Numa Griffith, the son of Gates Claude Griffith and Helen Lippold Griffith, a nursing supervisor at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, was born in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and raised in Cumberland and Mount Washington.

When Mr. Griffith was 17, he was stricken with polio and spent several months in an iron lung at Children’s Hospital in Baltimore, but went on to become an active sailor and golfer.

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He was a City College graduate and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1955 in philosophy from the Johns Hopkins University. After leaving Hopkins, he went to work for the Baltimore City Department of Welfare, where he met and fell in love with a fellow social worker, Beatrice Conkling Clarke, whom he married in 1961.

Mr. Griffith and his wife settled into a home on Bolton Hill where they raised their three children. While living in Bolton Hill, family members said, he spearheaded the effort that resulted in the establishment of the Bolton Hill Swim and Tennis Club, even though he could neither swim nor play tennis.

After leaving social work, Mr. Griffith established a low-vision clinic in 1960 at the old Presbyterian Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in East Baltimore. Three years later, he became the assistant administrator in charge of outpatient services, and in 1965 was named administrator of the hospital, which eventually became a part of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

In 1967, Mr. Griffith founded the Medical Eye Bank of Maryland. He was instrumental in getting a major piece of legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 1975 that permitted removal of corneas during autopsies performed by the state medical examiner, barring an objection from family members.

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The law proved to be groundbreaking; 22 other states passed similar legislation, dramatically increasing the availability of corneas. At one time, the Medical Eye Bank of Maryland was supplying 70 percent of all the emergency requests for cornea donations in the United States.

In 1984, Mr. Griffith created the first U.S. network of eye banks when he established Tissue Banks International — also known as TBI — which resulted in 26 eye banks nationwide.

In association with the Saudi Eye Foundation, TBI formed an overseas division in 1988 that became known as the International Federation of Eye Banks, and during his leadership eye banks were organized and opened in more than 20 countries, including South Africa, Egypt, India, Poland, Bulgaria, Australia, Myanmar and the Philippines.

During his years with TBI, Mr. Griffith made more than 20 worldwide trips establishing eye banks, often in the company of his wife. The doctors and medical professionals they worked with dubbed the couple “Dr. Griffith and Miss Bea,” even though Mr. Griffith did not hold a medical degree.

“He could open doors very quickly and was not afraid to go to places where others were afraid to go. He was not hesitant at all,” Mr. Farazdaghi said. “He opened doors for eye banking and overcame obstacles. We worked in 26 different countries and created 48 eye banks that are thriving. There are no longer waiting lists for corneas, and he accomplished this through public education.”

Throughout his career, Mr. Griffith stressed the value of teamwork, often saying: “It’s the little things that make everyone feel part of a team. It’s a combination of the right people and forces coming together at the right time.”

“Frederick had an enduring passion to help the corneally blind in developing countries and eradicate corneal blindness globally,” said Mr. Farazdaghi, a Parkton resident. “He has touched the lives of many. The world is a much better place because of his foresight and enormous contribution.”

Dr. Gullapalli N. Rao, founder and chair of the L.V. Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, India, turned to Mr. Griffith in the 1980s for technical support when he sought to start the eye bank.

“Frederick was one of the few believers in our work and supported us unwaveringly in our early years. Without this, our eye banking effort would have never reached anywhere close to what it is now,” Dr. Rao explained in a biographical profile of Mr. Griffith. “On behalf of hundreds of thousands of people whose lives his actions already touched and several times more in the future, I can say that his life made a huge difference.”

Dr. Walter J. Stark, TBI medical director and director of cornea and cataract services at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, summed up Mr. Griffith’s legacy in a 1997 interview with The Sun: “He has been the main force behind eye banking for the past 30 years. He began here, but he didn’t stop in Baltimore. He organized the country, then the world.”

Mr. Griffith retired in 1998.

A fan of the performing arts and especially the opera, Mr. Griffith was a member of the boards of the Baltimore Opera Company and the former Maryland Ballet. He also had a seat on the advisory council of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and supported budding performers through donations to Peabody Scholarships.

While living at his Park Avenue home in Bolton Hill, Mr. Griffith shared both his passion and knowledge of opera at weekly gatherings where for more than a decade he conducted opera classes that also included annual trips to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

In addition to his wife of 61 years, Mr. Griffith is survived by two sons, Frederick Clark Griffith of New York City and Benjamin Gates Griffith of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; a daughter, Lydia Conkling Griffith of Richmond, Virginia; a brother, John Cavendish of Richmond, Kentucky; and four grandchildren.

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