by Len Lear
Dr. George L. Spaeth, 81, a Chestnut Hill resident for more than 50 years and one of the world’s leading glaucoma and ophthalmology specialists, still puts in a 70-hour work week at Wills Eye Hospital, as he has done for the past 45 years, where he is a revered figure, not only as a medical giant but for his humanity.
Dr. Spaeth, who is also a poet, fiction writer, pianist and organist, composer and award-winning gardener, was honored by Wills Eye Hospital on Oct. 19 at a Union League black tie affair with about 400 people in attendance.
Dr. Spaeth is no newcomer to honors. In 2010 he received the Mildred Weisenfeld Award for Excellence in Ophthalmology from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, and he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
He has authored more than 400 articles in peer-reviewed journals, hundreds of commentaries, more than 100 book chapters, 200 editorials and 18 books. He serves on the editorial boards of six journals and is the author of the surgical text, “Ophthalmic Surgery, 4th Edition,” which is used around the world. And as a young resident at Wills, he discovered the disease homocystinuria and published the early work on the condition.
Why did Dr. Spaeth pursue the same profession as his father, who was also an ophthalmologist? “Because being able to see well is a wonderful thing — for mothers to be able to watch their children grow, for fathers to see their sons outdo them in sports. For anybody to be able to see is a lovely and mysterious thing.”
The Chestnut Hill resident has been at the forefront of ophthalmic research, particularly in glaucoma, for 40 years. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Dr. Spaeth graduated from Germantown Friends School in 1950, received his bachelor’s from Yale in 1954 and his medical degree from Harvard in 1959. He interned at the University of Michigan Hospital in 1960 and began his residency at Wills Eye Hospital in 1961.
In 1968 Dr. Spaeth joined the staff of Wills Eye Hospital and has remained there ever since. “Probably there was something in the way I was made that pushed me here,” said Dr. Spaeth in a previous interview. “Growing up I loved art, music, nature and poetry, and being a boy, running and playing and having a good time. In college I took pre-med courses as a backup, but I majored in the history of ideas. My thesis was on the role of religion in history.”
He studied music, but “I was no Bach, no Mozart. I didn’t know if I could support myself as an artist. As it turned out, I was called to be a doctor. Perhaps something pushed me there. I went into medicine, and I felt the field that would make me most able to help people was ophthalmology.”
Dr. Spaeth also feels blessed to have lived and worked in this city. “Philadelphia is a wonderful community. The arts are great, excellent schools; residential areas are lovely with a lot of space. We live right next to Fairmount Park, the largest park in any city in the world. You can always see animals and feel close to nature.
“I’m 30 minutes away from a great hospital to work in. The drive to work is beautiful. West River Drive looks like it leaped out of a Thomas Eakins painting. It’s a visually beautiful city. Something about the Quaker influence here — I became a Quaker for a while — every person is worthwhile, and God is in every person. And wealth is not the most important thing … Albert Einstein once said there are two types of people, those who see nothing as a miracle and those who see everything as a miracle. I put myself in the latter category.”
But despite significant advances in medical technology in recent decades, Dr. Spaeth insists that the medical delivery system in the U.S. is “terrible. It’s broken. Even the rich don’t get the best care because they are overtested and overtreated. I wish people who are vitriolic (about proposed dramatic changes to the status quo) would spend just one hour in a clinic for the poor.
“It is heartbreaking. You have patients who are overweight, malnourished and are not getting an education, medical care or healthy food. It’s a tragedy. The human misery in unbelievable. At least 50 percent of the people in Philadelphia with glaucoma never even get diagnosed. In the richest country in the world, this is totally unacceptable! We should have the kind of umbrella coverage that they have in European countries.”
Dr. Spaeth has also authored a 600+ page book, “Family Voices,” about his family’s remarkable history. 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.
Dr. Spaeth’s late wife, Ann, died on Jan. 11 of this year at the age of 78. She was a founding member of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, a former Chestnut Hill Community Association director and a longtime watchdog of the association’s bylaws. CHCA honored her with the Chestnut Hill Award in April, 2009.
Dr. Spaeth said that because of Ann, their three children “are gentle and ultimately concerned with fairness. I’ve been fortunate to spend my life with someone who challenged me. She made me wonder about the small things and the great things. Should I step on a tent caterpillar? Do I have the right to do that? There is value in everyone and everything.
“I had wonderful parents, but my mentor was Ann, who represented honesty, integrity, justice and caring. We were together for 54 years, and I have evolved because of that incredible woman. She was gracious, beautiful, intelligent and so much more. And my children (Kristin, George Jr. and Eric) have also challenged me. Some of my greatest moments were walking my dog and discussing free will, art and beauty with my children, not to convince someone but to explore a fuller understanding. What a gift!”