May 31, 2006

Harold F. Falls, Leader in Medical Genetics, Has Died

Dr. Harold Falls
Harold F. Falls, M.D.

ANN ARBOR, MI — Harold F. Falls, M.D., an ophthalmologist who played an early and influential role in the field of medical genetics, has died at the age of 96.  Dr. Falls helped to establish one of the first human hereditary clinics in the nation and devoted his long career to building a rich collection of genetic histories of eye disease that are still being studied today.

Dr. Falls resided in Brighton, Michigan, with his wife Emeline, who survives him.

Emeritus professor of the University of Michigan Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Dr. Falls started to make his mark in genetics very early, while he was a resident at the U-M Medical School. In 1941 he helped to establish the Heredity Clinic, widely recognized as the first such clinic in the nation. Two years later he was named medical director of the clinic.

Dr. Falls was prescient in understanding the importance of hereditary disease patterns.  In his study of Cooley’s anemia, for example, he began to lay out the principles underlying X-linked inheritance patterns, in which the female carries the mutation and passes it on to a son. He furthered his exploration of X-linked inheritance in eye disease in 1948 when he published a study of a large family with retinitis pigmentosa. He later described the phenotype of X-linked retinoschisis as well. He also made major contributions to the descriptions of retinoblastoma, ocular albinism, blue cone monochromacy, and the Indiana form of amyloidosis. In 1951, he published a paper on a type of ocular albinism that became known as the Nettleship-Falls Syndrome.

“Dr. Falls was the early central figure in developing the genetic basis of eye diseases,” said Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the National Eye Institute, at NIH, and a former faculty member of the U-M Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. “His clinical descriptions of hereditary retinal diseases, in what was then a relatively new field of study, formed the basis for my own work in ophthalmic genetics and that of many others. The modern stage is now being set to develop treatments for these genetic diseases first introduced to medicine by Harold Falls,” he said.

A keen observer and a highly respected teacher, Dr. Falls encouraged his residents to study the relatives who accompanied the patient, noting that they might reveal the carrier states of the disease about which the patient complained.  Reflecting on his work, he recalled telling residents, “No medical history was complete without the question, ‘does anyone in your family have a similar disease?’”

“Many experts consider Dr. Falls to be the founder of medical genetics,” observed Paul R. Lichter, M.D., chair of the department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. “Harold Falls had profound insights into medical genetics in the early 1940s, well ahead of his peers in any medical field,” he said. “His colleagues in ophthalmology regard him as the undisputed master of clinical genetics in ophthalmology.”

Dr. Falls was born in Winchester, Indiana on November 25, 1909, and later moved to Detroit. He completed his medical education at the University of Michigan in 1936 and his residency in ophthalmology in 1942. In addition to directing the Heredity Clinic, he became a member of the University of Michigan Hospital staff. He was named professor of ophthalmology in 1959 and re tired in 1975, receiving emeritus status. Dr. Falls held numerous leadership positions in local, state and national medical associations.

In 2003, colleagues and alumni honored Dr. Falls by establishing the Harold F. Falls Collegiate Professorship in Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. The family has requested that memorial donations be made to the professorship.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Falls is survived by his children Thomas (Judith) Falls, Hariette Falls (James) Gray, and Timothy (Patty) Falls; grandchildren Kelly Falls, Thomas James Falls, M.D., Jennifer (Brian) Moss, Carolyn Gray, Eric Falls, Jonathon Falls and Andrea Falls (Tony) Isaacs.

A memorial service will be held on June 3, 2:00 p.m., at the Borek Jennings Funeral Home in Hamburg, Michigan.

Last Modified: Wednesday, 08-Feb-2012 10:23:26 EST