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Our Town by William Kelly: UF Scripps Institute celebrates birthday of philanthropist Herbert Wertheim

Leaders from the University of Florida honored their namesake on May 29 when they gathered with friends and relatives of Dr. Herbert Wertheim to celebrate his 85th birthday.

More than 200 people attended the celebration at the Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology in Jupiter. The institute was renamed in Wertheim’s honor after he pledged a large gift in 2022 in support of scientific research and education.

Sporting his signature red fedora, Wertheim sat earlier that week for an interview with the Palm Beach Civic Association. The optometrist, inventor, billionaire businessman, philanthropist and Palm Beach resident reflected on his humble beginnings and how they helped to shape his views on philanthropy.

The Philadelphia native moved with his family to South Florida when he was around six years old. Raised in Miami Beach during World War II, Wertheim lived in a modest apartment above his father’s bakery. The family shared a common restroom with their customers and showered with a water hose that hung in a banana tree.

Summers were often miserably hot and humid. Their only access to air conditioning was at the movies, where a double feature, complete with cartoon, serial and newsreel, cost 9 cents.

Wertheim, who is dyslexic, struggled in school, where he was at times forced to sit in a corner with a dunce cap on his head.

At age 11, he began running away from home and hitchhiking to find work. He lived for a while with the Seminole Tribe in the Everglades.

“I think what I really imagined was having enough food to eat and not getting beat by my father,” he said.

Wertheim landed the first of many jobs in Davie, Florida, working with migrants picking fruit for as little as a dime a box. Three round meals cost $2 a day. At night he slept in a barn.

“I was very happy there. Everyone would sing at night … I really kind of liked being out on my own. I was never really hungry because people always fed me.”

He joined the U.S. Navy at age 17 after facing truancy charges. Military life provided educational opportunities and instilled discipline in Wertheim, who later founded and continues to helm Brain Power Inc., a manufacturer of optical tints for eyeglasses. The firm holds more than 100 patents and copyrights.

Wertheim was the first to discover and produce ultraviolet light dye absorbers for eyeglass lenses, helping millions of people avoid cataracts and other eye diseases. He holds nine U.S. patents.

Since 1970, he has invested his profits from Brain Power into the stock market, where he has amassed a $5.5 billion fortune over five decades, according to Forbes.

Wertheim is a graduate of Brevard Community College (now Eastern Florida State College) and the University of Florida, where he studied electrical engineering. He earned a bachelor’s degree in optical engineering and a doctor of optometry from the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tennessee.

Wertheim’s major donations include a $20 million gift in 2009 to Florida International University, which renamed its medical school the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. He has signed The Giving Pledge, which is a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to give most of their wealth to charity.

“I wanted to do good things for other people who never had the opportunities I had as a result of all the people who have taken care of me,” Wertheim said. “I call them my angels.”

Wertheim said he takes a big-picture approach to philanthropy that stands to do the greatest good in the long run.

“A lot of people direct their philanthropy toward the lower end of society, and I’ve decided that’s not what I want to do. I decided I want to create more doctors, nurses, engineers, musicians, optometrists, public service people, and [let] all their efforts trickle down and it will eventually help all those people on the bottom … If I produce more doctors and public health people, I’m going to help everybody.”

The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute holds the promise of making enormous strides in the advancement of human health and education, he said.

“I want to let people know how extraordinary this institute is. We have 350,000 square feet here [and] 500 to 600 researchers. We have the opportunity with the University of Florida and their thousands of professors to be able to integrate with what we are doing here. This will wind up being University of Florida East, little by little by little.”

We asked Wertheim how he envisions the institute 20 years from now.

“It would be nice to have a University of Florida clinical facility here. Maybe 50 or 100 beds to go along with our research we do here, where we are able to put a needle in someone’s arm with what we find out here.”

His advice to young people looking for their pathway in life is to be true to themselves. “Believe in your instincts. Don’t let other people define who you are. Unfortunately, so many people let other people define who they are and that’s never happened with me. I always knew who I was.”

To view the Palm Beach Civic Association’s June 30 PBTV Sundays feature on Dr. Wertheim’s 85th birthday celebration, CLICK HERE.

UF Scripps is a Civic Association sponsor since 2022 and is the signature sponsor of the Palm Beach Civic Association website,


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