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Published in CenterView on August 19, 2013
Dr. James Corbett
Dr. James Corbett

Corbett helps pen ‘pragmatic’ volume on neuro-ophthalmology

By Jack Mazurak

Dr. James Corbett’s wry sense of humor shows through when he explains that writing textbooks is a labor of love.

“And some amount of ego,” he said.

Corbett, professor and former chair of neurology, coauthored the textbook Practical Neuroophthalmology with Dr. Timothy Martin, associate professor of ophthalmology at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. The book’s second edition hit the market in July.

The authors updated the content and added color photos to the previous first edition black-and-white publication with richer graphics and more incisive diagrams.

“But really, to write a textbook, you have to be in it for the love of education,” he said, humor aside.

And clearly he is about education. Martin was Corbett’s last neuro-ophthalmology fellow, back in 1990, before Corbett moved from the University of Iowa to Mississippi the following year. The duo worked the last two years on their textbook aimed at neurology and ophthalmology residents.

“It’s also for the neophyte medical student who wants to become more versatile and the occasional neurosurgery resident,” Corbett said.

Rather than writing an epic tome, with every sentence cited and cross-referenced, Corbett and Martin produced a more pragmatic work. It’s a brief study in what physicians need to know to use and understand neuro-ophthalmology.

“I have nothing against the big textbooks, I have written chapters for them,” Corbett said. “The big texts are for the expert. (Those texts and our book) serve two different, parallel purposes.”

Neurologists and ophthalmologists ought to know their way around neuro-ophthalmology enough to recognize problems and refer patients to a subspecialist when appropriate, Corbett explained. The textbook provides that guidance.

“It’s an explanation of the kind of clinical detail that’s useful for the person who’s never going to be a neuro-ophthalmologist and may have never had any interest in it, but needs to know the nuts and bolts of a given problem,” he said. “And if they can’t get the specific information out of our book, there’s a bibliography that will lead them to it.

“It is important to be knowledgeable about the common problems, but also to know enough to identify the rare birds. We touch on those rare birds, but more to say how and where to get more information.”

The first edition, published in 2000, was part of a larger set of textbooks covering the essentials of ophthalmology. It was translated into Spanish and sold particularly well in Central and South America, Corbett said.  This is his third textbook.

Named for heavyweight champion Gentleman Jim Corbett, the neurologist grew up outside Chicago in River Forest and Oak Park, Ill.,  and completed his undergraduate degree at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

“I became interested in the brain in college during comparative anatomy and it hung on,” Corbett said.

He received his M.D. in 1966 from Chicago Medical School and returned to Providence for two years of internal medicine residency. He moved to Cleveland to complete a neurology residency at Case Western Reserve University, during which he had a brief neuro-ophthalmology fellowship at the University of California San Francisco.

His career includes positions at Portsmouth Naval Hospital, the Wills Eye Hospital and Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia, Pa., and the University of Iowa.

Corbett served as chair of neurology at UMMC from 1991-2008. He continues to practice neuro-ophthalmology and teaches students and residents.