Herbert A. Wertheim

Class of 2011

  • Founding Chairman, Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine Florida International University
  • Chairman Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Family Foundation
  • Chairman and CEO Brain Power, Inc.

Time and humanity are our only common denominators, use them wisely!

Herbert "Herbie" Wertheim was born in Philadelphia in 1939 to German immigrants. Shortly after his birth, Wertheim's father, a baker, received an opportunity to work for a bakery in Florida. He jumped at the chance to leave the cold, northeastern winters.

At first, the Wertheims lived in Miami Beach, but in 1944, when young Wertheim was only five, his father opened a bakery in Hollywood, Florida. "We lived above the bakery," Wertheim says. "My two younger brothers and I slept in the same bed. But the only toilet in the building was downstairs in the bakery, so we had to share it with our customers." To shower, the family used a hose that was hung over the branch of a banana tree. Most often, they simply took a bar of soap with them into the ocean, which was directly across the street from the bakery.

Wertheim's father was physically abusive to his wife and children. "My mother was the sweetest woman in the world," Wertheim says. "She worked hard for my father, but he was not easy to please, and he was not a gentle person. He beat her and broke many a broomstick on me." His father's abusive behavior eventually led to his parents' divorce, which fractured the family.

Wertheim's mother moved back to Miami Beach with his two brothers, and Wertheim was left with his father by court order to help with the bakery. By the time he was eight years old, he avoided his father's temper by periodically running away. At first, he would hitchhike to his mother's home and stay with her for a few days. When he was older, he began running away to work on migrant farms, picking oranges and grapefruit. He also worked on a dairy farm, where his job was to wash cows' udders before the cows were milked. When he grew tired of his subsistence living, Wertheim would return to his mother's small apartment until the court returned him to his father.

School offered another challenge for Wertheim. He excelled in science, math, and the arts, but reading was difficult. He believes now that he was dyslexic, but in those days he was simply told he had to work harder. He found school interesting, but his constant struggles with reading kept him from being a good student.

In his early teens, Wertheim got more adventurous in his jaunts away from home. He began running away to the Everglades and lived with the Seminole Indians there. During those escapades, he worked for tips in a gas station while washing windows and filling tanks during the day, but at night he caught frogs and snakes, and scavenged duck eggs. These he either ate or sold.

This daring life came to an end when the local game warden arrested the 16-year-old and sent him to juvenile hall. The judge, warning Wertheim that his running away would no longer be tolerated, gave him two choices: live in a youth reformatory until he turned 18, or pass an intelligence test and enlist under a special U.S. Navy program until he was 21. Wertheim chose to drop out of school in the ninth grade and join the Navy. His Navy aptitude scores were in the 90 percentile.

After boot camp in San Diego, Wertheim was sent to the Aviation Electronics School in Oklahoma. He thrived under the care and guidance of the Navy. "I got three meals a day, a place to sleep, and a great education. The more I learned, the more they taught me, I loved it. The Navy was my mother and father and family," he says. "To this day, it was one of the most important parts of my life. My success in life would not have been possible without the Navy's guidance, encouragement, and help."

After finishing his electronics course, Wertheim went to guided missile school. At the same time, he took dozens of Navy correspondence courses. After graduating near the top of his class, he went on to become a naval aviator, frogman, and diver. Upon his discharge in 1960, armed with a GED certificate that he earned while in the Navy, he attended Brevard Community College near Cape Canaveral, Florida, as a full-time pre-medical and engineering student. To support himself, he sold Collier encyclopedias and worked the night shift for General Dynamics and NASA.

As a NASA engineer, Wertheim helped design vision and neurological instrumentation systems. His work at NASA got him interested in vision, so he applied for and was accepted at the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis. He won a scholarship, which helped with his tuition. Wertheim had to work to pay all the other living expenses.

While a full-time student, Wertheim worked as a computer programmer and eventually became director and department head of the University of Tennessee Medical Computer Center. He led a team of more than 50 researchers for almost two years at one of the Southeast's largest medical computer installations. Their computing and research efforts later became the basis for the Veterans Administration's hospital information and record-keeping systems on IBM 360 computers.

Upon completing a special program and internship at the John Gaston Hospital in Memphis, in cooperation with the University of Tennessee Medical School, Wertheim opened his own practice and at the same time served as adjunct professor of physics and visiting researcher and lecturer at the University of Miami Medical School's Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. However, once he started booking patients six months in advance, he began to feel confined by his schedule and knew he would have to find another means to earn a living while continuing his passion for visual research.

To supplement his practice, Wertheim started a company called Universal Labs to market the ophthalmic instruments he manufactured. After only a few months, he sold that company at a profit. He then started Brain Power, Inc. (BPI), which became the world's largest manufacturer of ophthalmic instruments and chemicals.

Wertheim had a clinical practice for more than 12 years, while also conducting research in visual neurology. He was the first to stress that UV light was the principal cause of cataracts as well as retinal and macular deterioration. His inventions of therapeutic tints, UV absorbers for eyeglasses, and more than 4,000 other products have helped millions retain their eyesight.

More than 40 years ago, he and his team made significant breakthroughs in dyslexia, macular degeneration, and Parkinson's disease treatments. Wertheim holds more than 100 patents and trademarks, and has lectured worldwide.

"I like observing and trying to understand the different relationships that solve complex problems," he says. "I like to understand the neurological and physiological process that goes on within the eye and brain and how that affects visual health and perception. I think much of my success is a result of having a good background in physics, chemistry, electronics, physiology, neurology, anatomy, and pharmacology. Most of all, just keep on trying something that you can continue to change until you have a glimpse of a probable solution."

Wertheim has had a varied career as a veteran, educator, inventor, scientist, optometric eye physician, visual neurologist, research clinician, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and community leader. His philosophy is to make every minute count. "The only common denominator for all of us is time," he says. "It's what we do with that nonrenewable resource that defines who we are. I am one of those fortunate people with a high energy level. I love life, and I want to do as much as I can to make a difference in this world. None of us knows how many ticks remain on our clocks."

Asked how he defines success, Wertheim says, "Getting up every morning and doing what you want to do, that's success. It doesn't take money to be happy. Money just gives you more choices. If you make the choice of how you are going to spend your day, rather than someone else making that choice for you, then I call that success."

Wertheim says he sees his Horatio Alger Award as an opportunity to expand his joy of life. "It will give me an opportunity to do more to help deserving young people who are trying to make the most of their lives," he says. "I can't wait to get involved."

Under his long years of leadership, the Wertheim Family Foundation has funded religious buildings, zoos, libraries, public television and radio transmitters, plant conservatories, business lecture series, scholarships, performing arts, medical education and research centers, and many other causes.

As chairman of the Florida International University (FIU) Foundation, Wertheim raised more than $200 million for scholarships, endowments, and facilities. Among other things, he proposed and helped secure approval for the first public medical school in Miami. The medical school's curriculum is based on his vision of prevention, wellness, and community outreach with all healthcare and sociological members working together as a team. To honor him, FIU's board of trustees in 2006 named the new medical school the FIU Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.

Wertheim was also honored as a distinguished engineer alumni and commencement speaker at the University of Florida (UF), where he earned his degree and is a member of Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society. Nicole and Herbert Wertheim have contributed more than $25 million to UF, expanding more than $50 million with state matching funds. Wertheim's charitable boards include the Miami-Dade County Zoological Society, American Heart Association, Lighthouse for the Blind, and Boy Scouts of America. He was a founder of Colorado's Friends of Vail and the Vail Valley Citizen of the Year awards and a board member of the Vail Valley Foundation. Wertheim also served on the board of the International Sea Keepers, an organization of yacht owners that collects scientific data using their boats and crew and then broadcasting the data in real time by satellites to universities and governments around the world.