by Lou Mancinelli
Perhaps one may wonder what a day in the life of one of the world’s leading glaucoma specialists is like. (Glaucoma is an eye disease in which the optic nerve is damaged in a characteristic pattern. This can permanently damage vision in the affected eye[s] and lead to blindness if left untreated. It is normally associated with increased fluid pressure in the eye.)
And perhaps the wonder becomes even more fascinating when one learns said specialist is also an 80-year-old, 50-plus year Chestnut Hill resident and Renaissance Man (poet, fiction writer, pianist and organist, composer, award-winning gardener) who weaves his time spent with patients and the pen together like a master Persian rug maker.
For George Spaeth, M.D., the day begins around 5:30 a.m. On June 13, Spaeth’s public day concluded with a reading from “Family Voices” (Xlibris Corporation, 2011), his collection of poems, stories and editorials written by himself and four generations of various family members, at St. Paul’s Church in Chestnut Hill at 7 p.m.
Before he headed to work that morning at the Wills Eye Institute in Center City, where he now serves as the Louis J. Esposito Research Professor and served as its director of glaucoma service and research laboratories from 1968 to 2007, Spaeth looked over papers for a talk he was scheduled to give in Copenhagen in the days that followed his “Family Voices” event.
He arrived at Wills around 6:30 a.m. and began to see patients. His visits included a patient afflicted with a rare form of glaucoma that presented challenges for Spaeth and required a creative treatment.
“Some of them I can’t quite figure out what’s happening,” said Spaeth about his patients’ varying conditions. “I have to put on my thinking cap and try to find ways that work.”
The day continued. He discussed research projects with young medical residents. One voiced her interest in furthering a study that purports that there is a direct relationship between the rate one walks 40 feet and how long that person will live. The young researcher is interested in expanding that study to include figures that investigate the relationship between the change in the rate an individual walks 40 feet as it’s recorded at different times. She wondered, how could Spaeth help?
Spaeth left Wills around 6 p.m. and on his way home talked to the Local before he slipped into his kitchen for a brief meal and hustled out to make it to St. Paul’s for his “Family Voices” reading.
“I am now eighty/Younger people question me/I answer: wisely?” writes Spaeth, who was raised in Mt. Airy and attended Germantown Friends School (’50) before studying history at Yale University (’54).
He then went to Harvard Medical School (HMS), where a sickness caused him to miss a year. During his absence he started to write poetry. He graduated from HMS in 1959, then interned at the University of Michigan before attending the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school (’61). That was followed by a two-year residency at Wills. He worked in his father’s ophthalmology practice in the city before focusing on glaucoma. In 1959 he bought a home in Chestnut Hill and has lived there since, where he and his wife, Ann Ward Spaeth, raised three children — Kristin, George Jr. and Eric. They also have three grandchildren.
“I don’t know whether I’m wiser,” said Spaeth about what he knows at age 80 versus what he knew at 20. “At age 20 I think I was just doing things. Now I think I’m much more aware.”
He’s more aware about his passion for life. He listens better. And is more in awe of the wonder of the miracle of this thing called living. He points to the teachings of Socrates to indicate out how little he knows, how much he has to learn.
“The only thing that made [Socrates] wiser than his compatriots is that he knew he didn’t know too much,” said Spaeth.
It’s those insights one learns along the way, tributes to life and more that fill the 600 pages of “Family Voices.” His family’s unusual history, including many of whom attended Harvard and a best-selling New York Times author, inspired Spaeth to create the book. To compile the writing he wrote to relatives, introduced the idea and asked for anyone who wanted their work to be published in the book to send it his way.
If his family members have anything close to the vibrancy running through their veins that Spaeth’s life demonstrates, the book must be provocative.
Throughout his career, Spaeth has published more than 360 articles in peer-reviewed journals, hundreds of commentaries in various formats, over 100 book chapters, around 200 editorials and 18 books, which have been translated into other languages, including Chinese. His surgical text, now in its fourth edition, is used in various countries around the world, and he serves on the editorial board for six journals.
Fellows he has trained work in 34 countries on six continents and include the current or past presidents of the American, European, Chinese, Pan-Arab-African, Brazilian and Chilean Glaucoma Societies. Spaeth himself founded and served as the first president of the American Glaucoma Society. And as a young resident at Wills, he discovered the disease homocystinuria and published the early work on the condition.
In addition, Dr. Spaeth is an emeritus member of the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Philadelphia Bach Festival, and composes and plays music on the piano and organ at his summer home on Squirrel Island in Maine. His flower and vegetable garden won first prize in the City Garden’s contest of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in 2004.
Perhaps it his outlook on life and his understanding that have contributed to his success. “A physician’s job is to try to create environments which will encourage people to be healthy,” he said. “We don’t heal anybody. We make it possible for people to heal themselves … The scientific part is the easy part … Nobody can take care of anyone else unless they know who they are.”
Well, who is George Spaeth?
“I’m still learning,” he said.
“Family Voices” is available online at Amazon.com