Genm. James Culver (MD '45)
The Final Frontier - Vision Discovery Institute’s Namesake Launched Stunning Aeronautics Career
Gen. James F. Culver’s career has included so many stunning milestones— supporting the nation’s first manned spaceflights, treating President Lyndon B. Johnson, studying the effects of radiation on vision—that one would think his friend, Dr. Julian Nussbaum, would be hard-pressed to cite his greatest achievement.
But Nussbaum, Chair of the Medical College of Georgia Department of Ophthalmology, doesn’t hesitate for a second: “He absolutely adores his wife,” Nussbaum said. “They have an amazing symbiotic relationship. It’s just fun to be with them; you can tell they love each other so much.”
Culver and Nussbaum struck up a friendship when they met a decade ago at an MCG alumni event. Nussbaum had recently assumed the helm of the ophthalmology department, and Culver was well-known as one of MCG’s most illustrious alumni. Nussbaum was well-acquainted with Culver’s groundbreaking work in ophthalmology, which included studies of the ocular effects of radiation, retinal burns, flash-blindness, glaucoma and aerospace medicine. But Nussbaum was astonished to learn of the depth and breadth of that expertise.
Born in 1921 in Macon, Ga., Culver earned his MCG degree in 1945, then served two years on active duty as a member of the surgical staff at Pratt General Hospital in Coral Gables, Fla. As a reservist, he completed postgraduate work at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, then completed ophthalmology residencies at Wesley Memorial Hospital and Passavant Memorial Hospital, both in Chicago.
Next came private practice, with Culver and wife Jean settling in Watsonville, Calif.
But seven years after hanging his shingle, the U.S. Air Force came calling, seeking ophthalmological expertise for its fledgling aerospace program. Culver began conducting extensive research into areas that initially affected astronauts but now have widespread applications, such as the potential effects of cancer treatment on the eyes.
With the United States in a breakneck race with the Soviet Union to be the first to put a human in orbit around the earth, the Rocket Boys era heralded one of the most revolutionary technological periods in history—and Culver played a defining role. “He helped screen the first astronauts of Project Mercury (the nation’s first human spaceflight program, with the inaugural mission launching May 5, 1961) and he flew lots of classified missions determining effects of radiation on vision,” Nussbaum said. “He has a wealth of information about aerospace ophthalmology; his stories are just fascinating.”
In the mid-1960s, Culver joined the Aerospace Medical Division at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas as Assistant Director of Research and Development, then graduated with distinction from the Air War College. He was assigned to the U.S. Air Force Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, D.C., as Chief of the Medical Research Group-Biotechnology Office and ophthalmology consultant to the U.S. Surgeon General. In 1973, he was assigned as a Commander of the Air Force Clinic at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, then became Command Surgeon for Headquarters Pacific Air Forces. His last post before retiring as a Brigadier General in 1981 was as Deputy Surgeon General for Operations and Commander of the Air Force Medical Service Center at Brooks Air Force Base.
Culver amassed countless honors along the way, including the prestigious Arnold D. Tuttle Award from the Aerospace Medical Association in 1966.
Throughout his career, Culver and his wife enjoyed seeing the world and envisioning their legacy. When he met Nussbaum, he quickly embraced the work being done at Augusta University's Vision Discovery Institute, which Nussbaum oversees with Dr. Sylvia Smith. “Our mission dovetailed nicely with his 50-plus-year career, which included authoring over 50 papers on experimental and clinical ophthalmology,” Nussbaum said.
The two quickly became friends as well as colleagues. “We struck up a friendship and our families have visited once or twice a year ever since,” Nussbaum said. “He is very likable, ethical, engaging and disciplined, with a huge range of interests. For instance, he loves to travel and he collects antique cars. And even though he’s retired from ophthalmology, he still stays current, reading scientific articles every month.”
Culver and his wife demonstrated their generosity almost immediately upon meeting Nussbaum, donating property and several rare first-edition ophthalmology textbooks to the department. Then came the donation that would seal his legacy for generations to come: a $2 million gift to the Vision Discovery Institute, now named the General James F. Culver, M.D., and Jean Culver Vision Discovery Institute. “The donation will be transformational for the VDI and for the legions of students, researchers and patients who will benefit from its work,” said Tony Duva, Augusta University Senior Director of Development for Gift Planning.
Culver hopes his gift will motivate others to follow his lead. “I would encourage all alumni and friends of MCG to make a plan for giving,” he said. “I am convinced that the mission statement of the VDI will be fulfilled because of leaders like Dr. Nussbaum.”
Written by Christine Hurley Deriso