Jun 3, 2019

Original Foundation Advocate Gertrude Weiss Celebrates 100th Birthday

Beacon Stories

Gertrude Weiss was one of the early Foundation Fighting Blindness investors and advocates. Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, Gertrude continues to live her life to the fullest. As a longtime friend, the Foundation honored Gertrude on her 100th birthday recently.

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By Gertrude Weiss’ Granddaughter

This is one of those stories that seems rather incredible to believe.

In 1971, a group of friends gathered in a well-appointed living room in Baltimore, Maryland to discuss the start of a charity for a rare genetic disorder of the eye. This new research-driven organization would become known as the RP Foundation. Most people in the room had never heard of retinitis pigmentosa (RP), including Gertrude and Morris Weiss, but they were convinced this organization would benefit generations of people and knew it was worth an early investment to help find cures.

Photo of a 1970s-era Gertrude Weiss, on the phone.

Gertrude Weiss (circa 1970s).

Gertrude Weiss was a stylish grandmother of five, who was known for driving a white Mustang convertible with red leather seats. One day, Gertrude went for a routine eye exam. The ophthalmologist saw spots on Gertrude’s retina and wanted to refer her to a specialist at Johns Hopkins to rule out something called RP. “Do you mean retinitis pigmentosa?” Gertrude asked. The physician was surprised she had heard of the disease.

Photo of Gertrude Weiss on her 100th Birthday holding her award from the Foundation Fighting Blindness

Gertrude Weiss on her 100th Birthday holding her award from the Foundation Fighting Blindness

By the mid-1970s, Gertrude was diagnosed with RP and slowly began to lose her peripheral vision. The diagnosis, with no known cure, was unexpected, given Gertrude did not even wear glasses, knew of no relatives with the disorder, and was older than most who were diagnosed. But none of these surprises stopped Gertrude from living her life to the fullest.

Gertrude began working in the interior design business, as her acumen for math, organization and style superseded any diagnosis. She continued to drive a sporty car, but always returned home before dark and when her night blindness would affect her most. Eventually, she voluntarily gave up driving altogether, but continued to work while her vision eroded. 

“I was fortunate to have time to prepare,” recalls Gertrude. “I sought out tutors who would teach me how to cope with a lack of sight. I relearned tasks as simple as measuring milk for my cereal, texturizing the keypad of my phone, or walking with the arm of another.”

This month, Gertrude celebrates her 100th birthday. Now completely blind, she relies on her sharp mind and math skills to read, invest and even give design advice. 

“When the RP Foundation began, I was impressed with the real possibilities for a cure that existed in the research world,” says Gertrude. “Now that the organization is called the Foundation Fighting Blindness, I continue to monitor the innovations and therapies that are beginning to have a significant impact on those of us with degenerative eye diseases. It’s gratifying to know that some will truly see this progress.”