Witham Family Establishes Ocular Oncology Professorship

Hakan Demirci, M.D., Marilyn Witham, Richard Witham and Paul Lee, M.D., J.D.
Hakan Demirci, M.D., Marilyn Witham, Richard Witham and Paul Lee, M.D., J.D.

Kellogg Professor Hakan Demirci, M.D., was named the Richard N. and Marilyn K. Witham Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences during an inauguration and installation ceremony in August. The Withams’ gift of $2.5 million established this ocular oncology professorship. Their family members attended the installation ceremony. 

Marilyn Witham was diagnosed with ocular cancer 11 years ago, and while she no longer has sight in the affected eye, Dr. Demirci and fellow Kellogg professors Grant Comer, M.D., M.S., and Andrew Vine, M.D. (now retired), were able to preserve her vision for as long as possible—and to save her life. 

“The care he (Dr. Demirci) provided Marilyn was cutting-edge—and compassionate,” Richard Witham said at the event. “His high standards and personal dedication to medicine are evident in every conversation we have. We are thrilled that his work and his leadership in the field of ocular oncology will benefit from this gift.” 

Ocular cancers are rare, but they affect thousands of children and adults in the U.S. each year. The main tumors are retinoblastoma, which accounts for 4 percent of pediatric cancer cases, and ocular melanoma, the most common primary ocular cancer in adults. 

Dr. Demirci partners with faculty at Kellogg and the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center to ensure patients receive top-tier care. He also has built a robust and diverse research program with colleagues across campus as well as nationally and internationally. Projects include an innovative imaging system for eye tumors, targeted approaches to treating intraocular tumors with few side effects and development of a mobile phone application that helps in the early detection of eye cancers in children.

“This professorship will enable our ocular oncology program to grow and thrive, with the goal of helping patients in Michigan and around the world through research and education,” Dr. Demirci said. 

The Withams, who are from Muskegon, Michigan, said they are grateful to have partnered with Kellogg and the University of Michigan to make a difference in the lives of people facing ocular cancer.

“We have met other patients from around the country and around the world at Kellogg, and we are not surprised that so many seek care here,” Richard Witham said. “We have learned a great deal about the faculty’s goals for the Kellogg Eye Center, and their success is widely recognized.”

“At this point in our lives,” he said, “it is time to act on our gratitude—to give back as much as we are able.”