UA's Velma Dobson, PhD, Internationally-Known Expert in Human-Vision Development, Dies

Services Thursday, April 15, 1 p.m.

Velma Dobson, PhDVelma Dobson, PhD, Professor of Ophthalmology and Vision Science and Professor of Psychology, died April 9, 2010 following complications of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  Dr. Dobson was an internationally known scientist who studied the development of human vision. Her honors include being named a Fellow of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, an honorary member of the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, an honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry and the 2008 recipient of the prestigious Glenn A. Fry Medal in Physiological Optics.

Her early work made practical the measurement of infant visual acuity so that studies of infant vision could be performed (The Teller Acuity Card Procedure). This permitted ophthalmologists to determine that treatments for retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) were effective (twice cutting in half the risk of blindness to the pre-term infants who suffer from this disease) and that improved formulations of infant formula result in better brain development (demonstrating that lecithin is a key additive for pre-term infant visual development). 

Dr. Dobson joined the faculty of the University of Arizona in 1994. She continued her work on infant vision development at a laboratory at the Square and Compass Children’s Clinic, where infant subjects were recruited by students making cold calls to parents who listed birth announcements in the newspaper. The “normal” subjects were not all normal, however, and many children were identified and treated for vision loss that was unsuspected by their parents. These studies of normal infant vision development provided crucial information to allow clinicians to differentiate the normal from the poorly seeing baby, a very difficult task given that a two-month-old infant can barely recognize one face from another, while a six-month-old child sees in a much more adult-like manner.

Since coming to Arizona in 1994, Dr. Dobson has been central in a partnership between the University of Arizona and the Tohono O’odham Nation that has resulted in groundbreaking research on how astigmatism affects visual development, and on the effectiveness of treatment for astigmatism-related amblyopia. The results of this research have provided valuable clinically relevant findings that will benefit Tohono O’odham children in particular, as approximately one in three have clinically significant astigmatism, as well as children with astigmatism in general. 

Despite her need for ventilator support during the last two years, Dr. Dobson remained productive to her death. Most notable among her publications in 2009 was a study providing evidence that preschool spectacle correction reduces the prevalence of amblyopia or lazy eye in school-aged children. In an era of evidence-based policy making, the implications of this paper will be long-lasting for efforts to mandate vision screening for preschool children.

Here at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Dr. Dobson is best known for her participation on the Space Committee (which enforces the standards for research space allocation), a particularly contentious undertaking with which to be associated.  Geoff Ahern, MD, PhD, notes that Dr. Dobson was able to establish a benchmark for space allocation to research faculty on the basis of their grant funding. This funding line, which persists to this day and is known as “The Dobson Line,” is puzzling at the first glance, and genius at the second.

Dr. Dobson is survived by her husband, Patrick Burke, MD, PhD, a noted Child Psychiatrist and former UA faculty member, her son, Andrew Burke, MD, a graduate of the UA College of Medicine and resident in Diagnostic Radiology at Oregon Health and Science University, and her daughter, Meg Burke, BA, a PhD candidate in mathematics education at Arizona State University.

There will be a memorial service at the East Lawn Palms Cemetery, 5801 East Grant Road, Thursday, April 15, at 1:00 p.m.