Clyde Edgar Keeler was born on April 11, 1900, in Marion, Ohio. He was the son of watchmaker and teacher Anthony Sylvester Keeler and educator Amanda J. Dumm Keeler. A man of diverse talents and interests, Keeler was involved in art, theater, archaeology and anthropology. It was as a medical geneticist, however, that he made his greatest contributions.
Keeler's academic career began when he earned his bachelor's degree and his first master's degree, concentrating in zoology, from Denison University in 1923. This period includes the three months Keeler served in the U.S. Army as a member of the Student Army Training Corps. The signing of the Armistice, which ended World War I in November 1918, also brought about Keeler's discharge from the military. He then joined the Reserve Officer's Training Corps and, after earning his commission, served in the U.S. Officer's Reserve Corps. He was discharged in 1947 as a major.
Keeler next attended Harvard University. It was here, at the age of 23, that Keeler found the first structural nervous system abnormality that could be linked to the mutation of a single gene. The particular defect was found when Keeler examined microscope slides of specimens of mouse eyes. He discovered that the specimens were missing the rods of the retina, an interior structure of the eye. Keeler was later able to prove that this flaw was caused by a single-gene mutation. This work formed the basis of Keeler's master's and doctoral thesis at Harvard. Keeler's efforts in this area were also instrumental in eventually finding the precise location of the DNA mutation responsible for the inherited human eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa.
After conducting post-doctoral work in Paris and Berlin, Keeler took a position at Harvard University as an instructor in ophthalmologic research and as the university's first medical geneticist. He occupied these positions from 1927 to 1939. From 1939 to 1942, he was curator of the Wistar Institute Genetic Colony at the University of Pennsylvania. After his position at the University of Pennsylvania was terminated due to budget cuts, Keeler worked successively at the Edgewood School in Connecticut, the Woman's College in North Carolina, and Wesleyan College in Georgia from 1942 to 1945. Keeler accepted a position in 1945 at Georgia State College for Women (later renamed Georgia College & State University) in Milledgeville, Georgia as a professor of biology. In 1961, Keeler was appointed medical geneticist at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia. He became the facility's Director of Research in 1963 and remained at the hospital until his retirement in 1975.
The Cuna Indians of the San Blas Islands in Panama were also a focus of Keeler's research. Beginning in the 1950s, Keeler made twenty-two trips to the islands to study albinism in humans amongst the Cuna. This particular population has the highest rate of this genetic condition in the world. In the process of conducting this research, Keeler helped the Cuna document their culture and he wrote five books on the subject. He also wrote and illustrated the first book on the Cuna alphabet and collected the tribe's artwork. The bulk of his collection of Cuna art is in the Denison University Art Gallery, while a small portion of the collection was donated to Georgia College & State University and is located in the Museum.
Keeler's interests also extended to archaeology. In particular, he was intrigued with the then novel concept that Columbus' famous expedition in 1492 might not have been the first European group to discover the North American continent. Keeler took part in archaeological digs, worked on translating ancient writings found in North America and wrote numerous articles on the topic.
Keeler received many honors for his work. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, a liberal arts honor society and to Sigma Xi, a scientific research society. He received lifetime achievement awards from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, the Retinitis Pigmentosa Foundation for Fighting Blindness and the Institute for the Study of American Cultures. Keeler was elected to a Life Membership in the Socit Zoologique de France. He received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Hilton, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also awarded a Bache Renshaw Fellowship and the Frederick Sheldon Travelling Fellowship of Harvard University. In addition, Keeler received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Mental Health, a special proclamation-commendation from the Governor of Georgia, and an honorary doctorate from Denison University.
Keeler married Dr. Johanna Abel in 1939. Dr. Abel Keeler earned her Ph.D. in socio-economics from the University of Berlin. The couple had one daughter, Irmgard (Irma) Keeler Howard and four grandchildren. Keeler died in Milledgeville, Georgia on April 22, 1994 and is buried in Memory Hill Cemetery. Keeler's wife died in 2000 and is buried beside him.