Celebrating Trans Day of Visibility: Dr. Renée Richards

Beyond Tennis: The remarkable ophthalmological career of Dr. Renée Richards.

By Kerry Halladay - March 31, 2024

Every March 31st is International Trans Day of Visibility, a day to recognize the achievements and contributions of transgendered people around the world. Here at the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank, we take visibility seriously, and so has Dr. Renée Richards over her incredibly long career as an eye surgeon.

Richards is perhaps best known for the 1977 controversy around her efforts to play in the U.S Open for tennis as a woman after her transition. But she has also been one of the world’s leading strabismus surgeons, particularly for pediatric patients.

Strabismus is a condition of the ocular muscles that results in misalignment of the eyes. Both before and after her transition, Richards conducted surgeries to correct children’s crossed eyes. According to Johns Hopkins, untreated strabismus in children can lead to vision problems like double vision, loss of sight in one eye, and loss of depth perception.

The Doctor Is In

Richards began her ophthalmological career with her medical internship in 1959 in New York. After her transition in 1975, she moved to California and continued practicing ophthalmology. She paused her medical career for five years to pursue her tennis career full time, but eventually returned to both New York and her ophthalmological practice in 1982.

During her medical career, Richards was involved in several noteworthy forays into strabismus treatment and the wider world of eye surgery. For example, according to her second autobiography, No Way Renée, she and research collaborator Yu Quon Chen developed an early version of what she described as an electrical pacemaker for paralyzed eye muscles in the early- to mid-1980s. Also from the book, she details her work treating eye issues in a pair of research chimpanzees who had AIDS. This was during the mid-1980s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. when the disease was poorly understood and greatly feared.

In 1991, Richards published A Text and Atlas of Strabismus, a medical reference book on strabismus surgery techniques intended for ophthalmology residents and graduates. Later in 1999, she wrote Diary 1999: An Eye-Opening Medical Memoir documenting the medical side of her life. She has written several other books, both about her professional and personal lives as well.

Eventually, in 2014 at the age of 80, Richards decided it was time to stop doing surgeries, but she continued her work in pediatric ophthalmology.

When asked how she wanted to be remembered in a 2015 Yale Alumni Magazine article, Richards answered:

“I’m known for being this pioneer in the transgender community. I was really the standard bearer. And that’s my legacy as far as the public is concerned. But as I write in my new book Spy Night, that was only a part of my life — a significant part — but the major thrust of my life has been being an eye surgeon for 55 years.”

Though she’d put her surgeon’s scalpel aside almost a decade before, Richards continued to see patients until her retirement in late 2023, making for an astounding 64 years in ophthalmology.

We see you Dr. Richards and applaud what you have done to improve people’s vision throughout your long career.

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