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Eyewitness to history

Leading ophthalmologist has forged a life of promise from the devastation of war

Created date

March 20th, 2012

In 1954, Gunter von Noorden was at a crossroads in his career. The newly minted doctor had just completed medical school in Frankfurt, Germany, and was looking for a paid internship to fulfill the practical requirement for his medical license. Disenchanted with his homeland and looking for professional opportunities abroad, Gunter boarded the SS United States in Le Havre, France, for the four-and-a-half day transatlantic crossing to New York. Gunter penned an account of his early years in a memoir, From Berlin to Texas, published in 2007. In the book, he describes his reaction at seeing America for the first time: When the Statue of Liberty came into sight through the light fog and mist on the port side of the ship, the crowd on deck cheered .Even more exciting and awesome than the statue was the skyline of Manhattan, the silhouette of which was now emerging from the morning fog. I found this scene truly overwhelming; its grandeur far exceeded all my expectations I had arrived in the New World. I did not know it then, but this was also going to be my new world. For the past six decades, Gunter has made the U.S. his home, rising to prominence as one of the country s leading ophthalmologists. By contrast, the early years of Gunter s life were marked by tragedy and betrayal, intrigue and despair. These are the stories that make up the bulk of his memoir and constitute a fascinating read.

Drafted into the Luftwaffe

At age 15, Gunter was drafted into the German air force, theLuftwaffe. My childhood ended abruptly when World War II broke out, says Gunter. I regret those lost years of schooling and the horrors of war that followed. In April 1945, during the Battle of Berlin, Gunter s right leg was injured when a shell exploded 50 yards away. I came very close to losing my leg because the wound got infected, he says. The doctors wanted to amputate, but I refused to give them permission. Eventually, my leg healed.

Postwar Europe

After the war, Gunter resumed his studies and moved to Frankfurt for medical school. His medical school years were marked with several notable events. Gunter recounts how he received care packages from Eleanor Roosevelt, one of his aunt s former classmates. He also was invited to tea with Princess Margarita of Hesse, granddaughter of Queen Victoria and a friend of Gunter s father. I ve since wondered how I managed to cram so many experiences into such a short time, says Gunter. It was the same way for most of my friends. I think the war made us feel like we had catching up to do. We tried to cram as much excitement into those years as we could. But as more information came to light about the crimes committed by Hitler and the Nazi regime, Gunter ached for the seemingly irreparable damage to his homeland. I was ready to get out of Germany, he says. I didn t want any part of a country that had started such a devastating war. Gunter s first stop in America was Little Rock, Ark. There, he assisted with a cataract surgery that left him wanting more. Eye surgery is clean, precise, and immediately effective in restoring sight, he says. It s very gratifying for patient and doctor alike. From Arkansas, Gunter moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he met his future wife, Betty. I was walking past the newborn nursery when I heard a few bars of a Mozart piano concerto, says Gunter. I was intrigued, so I introduced myself to the nurse on duty. She explained that she put on classical music to keep the babies asleep. That was it I was smitten.

Houston bound

In 1972, after nine years at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore, Md., Gunter and Betty moved to Houston, where Gunter helped build an academically strong eye department at the Baylor College of Medicine. He also helped to develop a program of pediatric ophthalmology and strabismus at Texas Children s Hospital. Houston has a stimulating intellectual climate, says Gunter, who worked for Baylor for 23 years. I never regretted my decision to move to Texas. After Gunter retired from Baylor, he and Betty spent ten years in Sarasota, Fla., before returning to Houston to be near their daughter, Sonja. Gunter rejoined his department at Baylor, where he continued to share his clinical experience with aspiring doctors. In 2011, the couple moved to Eagle s Trace, an Erickson Living community in West Houston, opting for a two-bedroom apartment with enough room for Gunter s books and the mementos they had amassed over years of world travel. Gunter converted the second bedroom into a home office lined with bookshelves. Gunter is still active in the medical field, meeting with the Harris County Retired Physicians Organization once a month. He also enjoys reading and studying for his own pleasure. I ve always been an avid reader, he says. I have a number of books I can t do without. That was the appeal of this apartment. We could bring all our treasures. From Berlin to Texas: Forging a life from the devastation of warby Gunter von Noorden is available for purchase on