Rabb, Maurice F., Jr.

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Maurice F. Rabb, Jr.



Pioneering ophthalmologist Maurice F. Rabb specialized in vascular diseases of the retina and cornea. He became internationally renowned in the early 1970s for his work at the Sickle Cell Center at the University of Illinois Medical Center, where he developed techniques for preventing retinal detachment and blindness in sickle cell patients. Rabb achieved many firsts in his long and distinguished career. He was the first black resident ophthalmologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) where he later became the first black medical director of an eye bank in the United States. Rabb was chair of ophthalmology at Chicago's Mercy Hospital from 1971–05, was the first black president of the medical staff there, and was a member of the hospital's board of directors from 2001–03. Rabb himself always disliked being labelled a "black ophthalmologist," preferring to think of himself as an ophthalmologist who happened to be black.

Maurice F. Rabb, Jr. was born in Shelbyville, Kentucky, on August 7, 1932, and was the only child of Dr. Maurice Rabb Sr., an anesthesiologist and family physician who was also a well-known civil rights activist, and Jewel Rabb, a high school math teacher. Rabb became interested in optics at an early age when he took up photography. At the age of 14 he represented Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky at the Boy Scout World Jamboree in Paris, France, and at 15 he took a solo train journey across the country, visiting Washington, California, and Mexico and photographing his trip as he went. His passion for travel was life-long. In 1948 when he graduated at age 16 from the Central Colored High School in Shelbyville, he opted to go to the University of Indiana medical school. Indiana was not his preferred choice of school and when the University of Louisville desegregated in 1951 he moved there, becoming one of the first blacks to be admitted to the School of Arts and Sciences. He graduated from the University of Louisville School of Medicine in 1958.

Rabb moved to New York University where he studied ophthalmology while he trained at the Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. He then moved to Illinois, where in 1963 he became the first African-American chief resident at the University of Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary. He then took the unusual step of opening a private practice in downtown Chicago where he specialized in retinal diseases. He married Madeleine Wheeler Murphy, an artist, designer, and later an art collector and consultant, on June 5, 1966. They had two children, Maurice III and Christopher Murphy Rabb.

In 1971 Rabb became chair of ophthalmology at the Mercy Hospital in Chicago, a post he held until his death. The following year proved to be one of the most important in his career. In 1972 he became the medical director of the Illinois Eye Bank, a post he held until 1987, and also joined the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's ophthalmic advisory committee. Also in 1972 Rabb co-founded the University of Illinois at Chicago's Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center with Dr. George Honig. Rabb served as director of the center for 16 years. In that time he raised over $16 million in grants. Through the center he pioneered research that has since made it possible to prevent retinal detachment and blindness in sickle cell patients. This break-through was arguably the most significant of Rabb's career, marking him out internationally as one of the most important practitioners in the field.

Rabb's distinguished career saw him appointed to numerous governmental organizations. When the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study came to public attention in 1972, Rabb was appointed as an ophthalmic consultant as part of the investigation for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the Tuskegee experiment, which ran from 1932 to 1972, treatment for syphilis was denied to a total of 399 poor African-American men with the disease in exchange for food and lodging. Participants were even denied penicillin, which became available in 1945, even though it proved highly effective in curing the disease. Congressional hearings found in favor of the participants and in 1973 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won a class action suit worth $9 million on their behalf.

Among his other appointments Rabb was professor of ophthalmology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, president of the Mercy Hospital Medical Staff, and medical director of Prevent Blindness America. In 1995 he was appointed to the National Advisory Council of the National Eye Institution of the National Institutes of Health. He also authored or co-authored 5 books and over 60 academic articles.

Despite his remarkable productivity Rabb also found time to keep abreast of popular culture. Interviewed after his death by the Chicago Sun-Times, his two sons said that Rabb enjoyed showing off his knowledge of current pop music, new technology, and movies. This engagement with youth made him popular with students. Medical students at UIC awarded him the Golden Apple Award for teaching three times and he also received the Teacher of the Year award.

Rabb was a long-standing member of the National Medical Association, which in 2000 named a scholarship after him and the late Dr. H. Philip Venable: the Rabb Venable Ophthalmology Award for Outstanding Research. Rabb died from lung cancer at his Gold Coast home in Chicago on June 6, 2005.

At a Glance …

Born Maurice F. Rabb Jr. on August 7, 1932, in Shelbyville, KY; died on June 6, 2005, in Chicago, IL; married Madeline Murphy Rabb, 1966; children: Maurice III and Christopher Murphy Rabb. Education: Attended University of Indiana, 1950s; University of Louisville School of Medicine, 1958; studied ophthalmology at New York University.

Career: Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn, New York, trained as an ophthalmologist; University of Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary, chief resident, 1963–72; Mercy Hospital, Chicago, chair of ophthalmology, 1971–2005; Illinois Eye Bank, medical director, 1972–87; University of Illinois at Chicago's Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center, co-founder and co-director, 1972–88; University of Illinois College of Medicine, professor of ophthalmology; Mercy Hospital Medical Staff, president; Prevent Blindness America, medical director.

Memberships: National Medical Association; Mercy Foundation, board member, 1995–2005; Mercy Hospital, Board of Directors, from 2001–3; National Advisory Council of the National Eye Institution of the National Institutes of Health, 1995–2005.

Awards: UIC Golden Apple Award, three times; UIC Teacher of the Year award; National Medical Association created Rabb Venable Ophthalmology Award for Outstanding Research in his and Dr. H. Philip Venable's honor in 2000.



Chicago Sun-Times, June 9 2005.

Jet, June 27, 2005.


"Dr. Maurice Rabb," The History Makers, www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=90 (July 5, 2006).

"Dr. Maurice F. Rabb Jr: Rich legacy of firsts," afro-netizen, www.afro-netizen.com/2005/06/dr_maurice_f_ra.html (July 5, 2006).

"Maurice F. Rabb, Jr.," Factmonster, www.factmonster.com/ipka/A0800432.html (July 5, 2006).