UNMC History 101: The oracle of Omaha ophthalmology

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Harold Gifford Sr., M.D.

The opening of the Stanley M. Truhlsen Eye Institute in May would have pleased Harold Gifford, M.D., a pioneer of ophthalmology in Omaha and at UNMC (then known as the Omaha Medical College).

His work as a doctor, an educator and a philanthropist shows that UNMC has always been at the forefront of eye and vision care.

Gifford was born in Wisconsin in 1858. He graduated from Cornell University in 1879 and received his medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1882, specializing in ophthalmology.

Gifford married Mary Millard in 1890. She was the daughter of Ezra Millard, a prominent Omaha pioneer banker and land developer (the city of Millard was named for him). The Giffords had four children: Sanford, Anne, Mary and Harold Jr.

Gifford did post-graduate work in New York, Vienna, Heidelberg and Zurich, and moved to Omaha in 1886, beginning his practice as an ophthalmic surgeon. He was professor of ophthalmology at the Omaha Medical College (forerunner of UNMC) and was dean of the college from 1895-1898.

From 1903 to 1925, he was professor of ophthalmology at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine and served as associate dean from 1902-1911.

Gifford was one of the founders of Methodist Hospital in 1891. He was a member of the American Medical Association, the Nebraska State Medical Association (president, 1907), the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American College of Surgeons. In recognition of his scientific and educational work, he received honorary degrees from the University of Michigan and the University of Nebraska.

Gifford was involved in a variety of civic activities. He promoted conservation of natural resources through his efforts to preserve what became Fontenelle Forest and Gifford Farm. He purchased and donated property to the city of Omaha for public parks, one of which bears his name.

Politically, Gifford was a socialist and pacifist. He wrote, "If you believe that a pacifist is one who abhors war and its evils, to the end that war may someday be abolished forever, and if you believe that a socialist is one who studies conditions with an idea of alleviating injustice, then I am both."

In spite of these unorthodox political views, Omaha's American Legion Post named him "Most Valuable Citizen" for 1927.

Dr. Gifford died of a heart attack in 1929 at age 71. Upon his death, the Omaha World-Herald featured tributes to him from leading citizens, including fellow philanthropist Sarah Joslyn.

She said, "He was a wonderfully fine man and the world will miss him. He was not only a great doctor, but a great philanthropist. The world will never know what he has done as a philanthropist, because he worked in such a quiet way."


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