Vassilis Kokotas, BSc, DOptom.c
Sad news usually appears unexpectedly, but is sometimes bypassed quickly by warm and sweet memories. This is what happened when we were informed about Dr. Albert Sutton’s passing. Scenes and discussions were highlighted in our brains, reminding us of all those experiences we shared with Albert Sutton as a colleague, as a teacher, as a mentor, as a clinician, as a friend, and most importantly, as a caring human.
Albert Sutton was always attempting to give answers, not for reaching endpoints, but for bringing up new questions and opening further discussions. This was obvious even by just looking at Al’s (that’s how he preferred to be called) research interests during his life time:
- In the 1940s, postural considerations were a big part of optometry. During that time, Al told stories about going out to piano bars with Darrell Boyd Harmon. He said that Darrell was able to correctly guess the eyeglass prescriptions of each piano player, by observing posture when he leaned over the piano keys. Al learned a lot about lenses and posture from those fun evenings out.
- In the 1950s, he studied the relationship between vision and developmental concepts, contributing to a book on preschool vision evaluations with Frances Ilg and Arnold Gesell. He also did a hospital study on how eyeglasses could change heart rates. He belonged to a study group with Gerry Getman and a dozen other budding optometrists.
- In the 1960s, Al figured out that exposure to chemicals affected brain function – as children who were exposed to leaded gasoline fumes and leaded paint didn’t succeed with classic VT sessions. Once the children stopped playing near the car exhaust or stopped eating leaded paint chips, their learning improved. He told about a story of a pregnant lady who lived above a dry cleaners and was inhaling chemicals during her pregnancy. The newborn had those chemicals in its system.
- From the 1950s to 1980s, he tirelessly spread the word that the eye was part of the brain. This included 1970s meetings with Moshe Feldenkrais, Karl Pribrham, and Ladybird Johnson, and meetings in the 1980s with V.R. Ramachandran.
- In the early 1990s, he introduced young optometrists to the concept of hair analysis being able to quantify biochemistry that affected brain function, and he treated biochemical imbalances. Al also showed us how primitive reflexes affected posture and eye movement, and led classes in how to integrate the retained reflexes. He loved the word “holistic” (a Greek word describing the whole concept) because it could reflect his clinical approach.
We had the chance to meet him under different circumstances, in different periods, but this fact did not prevent us from engaging a solid perception of his spirit. As part of this mentoring, Al constantly read journals from different professions and summarized them monthly at his study group for younger optometrists. In fact, he specifically said that he needed younger optometrists to carry out his work because it would take decades for mainstream optometry to accept the validity of his intuition. Al was trying gently, to teach everyone to observe the whole person, and not just “focus” on their eyeballs. Yet, his mentorship was not limited to the optometric stuff. He was supportive and encouraging to younger optometrists in a personal way.
Deborah, who met him in 1985 remembers: “… when I gave my first presentation to the Great Lakes Congress, Al came and visited Chicago specifically to cheer me on. Al’s six decades of research profoundly changed me professionally and personally. I feel lucky to have spent 7 years in Florida with him as a mentor, and moved back to Illinois to begin my neuro-optometric practice with his encouragement. For over two decades I spent countless hours with Al and Lorraine via telephone and video communication regarding patients, research, life, family and business”.
Vassilis met him much later in 2002 but he recalls: “…I had just finished my presentation during a K.I.S.S. meeting and I was still feeling tense. I was trying to find out where to sit during lunch when Al waved to me… «Come here son, this seat is for you». I sat next to him and his warm friendly talk took away all the tension… Next to his plate, there was a small one with many pills of different colors. I thought he must be very sick. He must have read my mind, explaining that all these were vitamins, minerals and supplements. So, a very informative discussion opened up on nutrition and its effect on vision”.
In addition to his passion for mentoring younger optometrists, Al also had a zest for learning that always had him trying new things. As an example, when meeting with Kerri Dietz Pilin he decided to try red beer (tomato juice poured into a beer) because that was a Nebraska thing.
Al was also blessed with his keenly intelligent wife Lorraine, who was a staple at optometric conventions. She was a wonder of competence & diplomacy – able to answer any question at a moment’s notice, but giving Al credit for it all. During our study group meetings, which took place monthly for many years, she was always present assisting everyone, but most importantly Al when his hearing and eyesight had started to decline. She will also be sorely missed.
Al taught us to question “why” on each patient and to analyze the whole. He convinced us to continue promoting the mind-eye connection in optometry, and carry on his message to other medical fields, by participating in international conferences of other professions, such as the Society for Neuroscience, the World Congress of Neurotherapeutics, and the World Congress on Brain Mapping and Therapeutics. Optometry’s words need to be spread out. Dr. Al Sutton was a true pioneer whose work has been slowly changing our profession. We will miss his exuberance and encouragement both professionally and personally.