Dr. Frank D. Costenbader is universally recognized as the first ophthalmologist to limit his practice, in 1943, exclusively to children. With that decision, he became the ‘’Father of Pediatric Ophthalmology”, and, by association, also the founder of Ophthalmology’s first sub-specialty.
Ophthalmology, being primarily a geriatric specialty, the visual disorders of infants and children, especially ocular motility conditions, were poorly understood, and generally ignored, until they became the primary focus of Dr. Costenbader’s attention and research. It was through his personal efforts that parents and pediatricians became convinced of the special benefits their children received under his care. Three years later, in 1947, Dr. Marshall Parks was released from his wartime Navy service and joined Dr. Costenbader in his office as a preceptee, and the following year as a partner. Thus began the close personal friendship and intimate professional relationship of Costenbader and Parks from which this new sub-specialty truly developed and flourished.
Born in Norfolk, VA on February 15, 1905, his demeanor bespoke the presence of a true Virginia gentleman. In his life and developing practice Dr. Frank Costenbader was recognized as a gentle practitioner, patient teacher, and innovative researcher, and often described as a “giant among men, tall and serious, but with a ready twinkle in his eye; clear thinking, articulate and beautifully spoken; above personal interest, an even-handed elder statesman.” The standard and objective he set for himself, and thereby for others, was excellence.
Dr. Costenbader received his medical degree from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1929. He came to Washington, DC, for his EENT residency in 1931 at the Episcopal Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. Always preferring Ophthalmology to Otolaryngology, he opened a practice in Washington in 1932, and through the first decade spent increasing time developing the Eye Clinic at Children’s Hospital. After 11 years in a general ophthalmology practice, he made that irrevocable decision to devote his career to improving children’s eye care.
Dr. Costenbader was a very active member of the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) and the American Ophthalmological Society (AOS). He actually achieved a reputation as a “strabismologist” before his exclusive pediatric practice, enabling him to participate with Burian, Adler, Swan, and others in national strabismus symposia. The publication of his AOS thesis on “Infantile Esotropia” in 1961, detailing the diagnosis and treatment of 1150 cases from his own practice, secured his reputation and he went on to become a co-founder of the elite Association for Research in Strabismus, the Squint Club. Of his own 65 published papers, the majority (75%) was on strabismus topics. He was also an early supporter of Orthoptics in the United States, participating in the formation of the American Orthoptic Council and serving as its president from 1960 to 1962.
In November 1970, Dr. Frank D. Costenbader was the first honoree of a new award of the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness, in New York City, recognizing his unique contributions and pioneering work in training pediatric ophthalmologists, and for emphasizing the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of childhood disorders. A week later, at age 65, he suffered a stroke and was medically retired. His condition gradually deteriorated due to an unrelenting Parkinson's disease. Today, Dr. Costenbader is revered by the world of Pediatric Ophthalmology, as he is by his former students, colleagues and their Costenbader Alumni Society. He is annually recognized and honored by AAPOS through the prestigious Frank D. Costenbader Lecture.