Alumni Focus on Gerald Westheimer (PhD’53)



I was born in Berlin, Germany, and the family emigrated to Sydney, Australia to escape Nazi persecution in 1938.

Which institution did you attend for your undergraduate degree? What was your major?

Sydney Technical College (now the University of NSW) Optometry, Class of 1943

Which degree(s), related to optometry, did you earn at Ohio State?

PhD in Physics (Physiological Optics), made possible by Dr. Glenn Fry enabling graduate admission and award of student visa.

Who were your mentors at the College of Optometry? Who had a positive effect on your education?

Dr. Fry was my graduate advisor and facilitated my progress toward the PhD in many ways. As a deeply committed scientist and investigator into the optical and physiological basis of vision and of optometric practice, he was a role model.

Gerald Westheimer Dr. Fry was very demanding when it came to the construction of research equipment. Merrill Allen, then an Associate Professor, helped to significantly simplify the process of data acquisition. Soon after, he left for the Indiana School of Optometry, where he did the same for a generation of graduate students. Incidentally, it was his slot that I occupied in the (then) School of Optometry from 1954 until I went to Berkeley.


Name of your employer(s) and title, including location.

I have been on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley since 1960, first in the School of Optometry and from 1967 in various capacities in neuroscience programs. Since 1994 my title has been Professor of the Graduate School.

Give us a glimpse of your typical day as an optometrist.Gerald Westheimer

Those days are long gone. I was in private practice in Sydney, Australia from 1944 until I left for graduate school in 1951, but continued studies of mathematics, physics and physiology part time all along.

Why did you choose a career in optometry?

An early interest in astronomy and optics, and the fact that the then Sydney Technical College program – part-time study/part-time internship in an optometric practice – was within reach.


What were your most memorable moments at Ohio State?

The very first day, having just arrived from a British colonial culture. I asked Dr. Fry what steps were needed to enroll as a student, he gave me instructions to go to various offices and then to get football tickets. When I asked why the latter, he was surprised that anyone would question the essential role of Buckeye football in the year that Woody Hayes took the team over.

I didn’t get tickets, but later that fall, Dr. Fry took me to the game against Pittsburgh, sitting in his prime 50-yard seats as befitted a senior professor. I thoroughly enjoyed the band, particularly the tuba dotting the “I” in script Ohio. During the game, I turned to Dr. Fry for an explanation and found that he was fast asleep.Gerald Westheimer

What do Ohio State and the College of Optometry mean to you and your family?

They were the connecting link between the life as an optometrist in Australia and the life as a participant in the golden years of the natural sciences in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century.

How do you stay connected with the College of Optometry?

As a colleague of Deans Hebbard and Hill, I kept abreast of their efforts. More recently, I always meet OSU people when they visit Berkeley and avidly follow the highly-rated scientific publications from the college.


What are your current hobbies, volunteer work and interests?

I have played the violin since a child, have done a lot of chamber music, and still practice daily.

If not an optometrist, I would be …

Let me turn this around – if I had not become a scientist, I would still be an optometrist. Gerald Westheimer