Dec. 11, 2023

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In Memoriam: Dr. C.J. Chen

Published on Monday, December 11, 2023

The Medical Center extends its sympathy to the family of a former faculty member in appreciation for the loved one’s contributions to the academic health sciences center.

Dr. C.J. Chen

Portrait of Dr. C.J. Chen
Dr. C.J. Chen

Dr. C.J. Chen, professor emeritus of ophthalmology and former chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, died Saturday, December 9 in California after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 78.

Chen, a native of Taiwan, came to the Medical Center in 1979 as an assistant professor of surgery. He was a noted researcher and one of the world’s premier experts in surgical management of vitreoretinal diseases. He served as chair of ophthalmology at UMMC from 2000 to 2015.

He was succeeded by Dr. Kimberly Crowder, the current holder of the first Drs. C.J. and Lin Chen Endowed Chair for Excellence in Ophthalmology, named for Chen and his late wife, Dr. Lin Chen, who was also an ophthalmologist.

“To me, he started out as my teacher, then he became my mentor, then my boss, then my colleague,” Crowder said. “And he was always my friend. Obviously, he was influential in my career development and making me the ophthalmologist I am today.

“As for the department, he was crucial in developing it in all three of our Medical Center missions: education, research and patient care,” Crowder said. “His legacy will live on in many ways.”

After graduating from medical school at Taipei Medical University in Taiwan, Chen completed post-graduate training and residencies in Taipei, then a fellowship in retinal and vitreous diseases at the University of Chicago. That was followed by his appointment as senior and chief resident in ophthalmology at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.

He was recruited to UMMC because of his expertise in vitreoretinal surgery. “I didn't expect to stay long, but after a few years, you really get to love this place," Chen said in a 2015 interview. His colleagues at the University of Chicago asked him to return three years after his move to Jackson, but Chen declined.

Since his arrival at the Medical Center, the Department of Ophthalmology benefited from his appetite for research to improve treatment and patient outcomes, and from his commitment to upgrading standards of care.

“He advanced the education mission through training countless residents and he touched the lives of every ophthalmologist who graduated from this program,” Crowder said. “Most are still practicing in Mississippi and the Southeast.”

In research, his investigations included a trial exploring a more effective alternative to fluorescein angiography – a retinal scan that detects blood flow in the eye. He also played a major role in many other clinical trials, including research on sickle cell retinopathy.

“He was instrumental in practically founding our research mission,” Crowder said. “Under his 15 years as chair, opportunities for research in this department definitely took off, producing participation in a number of clinical trials and an extensive record of publications in national peer-reviewed journals.”

Just a year after joining the UMMC faculty, Chen established an annual Ophthalmology Update Conference that continues today, providing UMMC residents and ophthalmologists statewide the latest information delivered by renowned experts.

“There is a lecture named for him: the Dr. C.J. Chen Endowment Retinal Lecture, given every August during the update conference,” Crowder said.

Chen and his staff touched patients even beyond the Jackson area; Chen established outreach clinics in Meridian, Hattiesburg, Kosciusko, Natchez and Vicksburg. He furthered the state's need for quality managed care through his founding of the Mississippi Quality Eye Care Network.

After stepping down as chair, Chen remained on the faculty until January 2019. He was a frequent lecturer at UMMC and taught School of Medicine ophthalmology students in the classroom and through his editing and co-authoring of the textbook, Clinical OCT Angiography Atlas, which examines optical coherence tomography angiography and its use in diagnosing ocular diseases and disorders.

The Department of Ophthalmology created the Chen endowment in July 2015 with an initial gift of $50,000 from Chen and his family. By December 2020, the fund had grown to almost $234,000. The Chen family then contributed another gift to bring the endowment to more than $1 million, the amount required for an endowed chair.

“I want to make sure that this is one of the top programs in the country,” Chen said then. “This is a time to give back.

“Also, I want to make sure there will be a continuity of the excellent lecture series established under my name and endowed by my colleagues before I retired.”

Chen was an avid photographer and travel buff. Together, he and Lin Chen enjoyed ballroom dancing, the symphony, ballet and opera. They loved visiting with their three children, all physicians living out of state, and their grandchildren. Chen was living in San Jose, California, at the time of his death.

His children were planning to have a private service initially, Crowder said, and are considering holding a service in Jackson to remember their father in August at the time of the annual Ophthalmology Update Conference.