Eulogy for Dr. Spencer Thornton
Spencer P. Thornton, MD, FACS, former president of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery and a pioneer in the world of ophthalmology, died Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.
Dr. Spencer Thornton lived his life to the fullest, and he touched and improved thousands of lives along the way. I was just one of the many. For the past 40 years, Spence has been my mentor, my friend, my confidant, and I have loved him like a brother. We weren’t actually born brothers — Spence was from the birthplace of country music. I was from a small suburb of Nashville called Cincinnati, Ohio, where my upbringing led me to believe that the South meant Florida over the Christmas holidays. I spent my childhood playing sports and studying to be an ophthalmologist like my father. In fact, I had never met a Southern gentleman, until our paths crossed one fateful day in San Diego in the early 1980s.
I was just out of my training, and I presented a very controversial study on placing incisions in the cornea at the time of cataract surgery to reduce astigmatism. This was never done before and the response of the conservative medical community was terribly vicious. After being attacked and humiliated, I departed the meeting and retreated to the back of an empty city bus where I was weeping from the verbal beating I had received. A warm hand on my shoulder signaled that I was no longer alone, and I immediately recognized the iconic face of the world authority on astigmatism, Dr. Spencer Thornton. He sat down and told me with his soft Southern drawl how much he enjoyed my presentation and explained that new ideas in ophthalmology have always made people feel uncomfortable, leading to an inevitable deluge of criticism. He offered kind and heartfelt words of encouragement. My spirits were lifted; in fact, they soared as he administered spiritual first aid and loving support as he has done not just for me, but for countless colleagues over his career.
As my own career progressed, I would often ask Spence for brotherly advice, which he gave generously. His advice was to always do the right thing, to take the high road, to behave with dignity. I treasured our friendship. Spence was always there, fiercely loyal.
As an ophthalmologist, Spence cared deeply for his patients. He was not only a world authority, he was also a pioneer in the field of refractive surgery. He designed so many instruments and intraocular lenses, wrote articles and textbooks, and treated audiences around the world to his down-to-earth teaching with grace, humor and humility. New ideas excited Spence, and he was always eager to learn. After he stopped operating, he became one of medicine’s foremost authorities on nutraceuticals. He also introduced a wonderful new way of teaching surgery at major meetings, namely the ASCRS Film Festival, where he served as the head judge for decades.
As an international ambassador, there was no one better. Spence and his beautiful wife, Ginnie, were loved by ophthalmic surgeons on six continents. Together, they would light up a room and were truly inseparable. I believe Spence was the most popular surgeon to ever visit Africa, where he was welcomed and befriended by South Africa’s President de Klerk. He was equally popular in Europe where he developed treasured friendships with innovators such as French surgeon Dr. Danièle Aron-Rosa.
Spence was held in such high esteem in this country that he rose through the rank and file to become the president of the ASCRS. If he wasn’t teaching up a storm or leading by example, he was either laughing or entertaining. I loved his sense of humor and the stream of jokes and videos that arrived regularly in my email. He was a professional magician who performed on The Tonight Show, and it was expected that he could make a card or a coin disappear while turning a stack of singles into $20 bills! Spence Thornton loved people and people, in turn, loved Spence.
While on the subject of love, Spence adored his family. He was devastated when he lost his soulmate, Ginnie. They were the royal couple of ophthalmology. And he would always tell me what the children were doing, especially his daughter, Beth, his pride and joy. When I took my younger daughter Jessie to interview at Vanderbilt, Spence told me that God’s greatest gift to man was a beautiful daughter. Jessie chose Clemson where she’ll graduate in December with straight A’s, a double major and a warmth in her heart for this Southern gentleman who treated her like she was the first lady. Every week when I would call Spence, the conversation would often reflect his pride in his multitalented grandchildren. He was so proud of his entire family.
Spence once told me that life is like a roll of toilet paper — the closer you are to the end, the faster it seems to go. Although his health rapidly deteriorated, his mind remained clear and inquisitive. I was so glad when the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery gave Spence the Lifetime Achievement Award in California earlier this year. To see thousands of surgeons on their feet, applauding his career, made me so proud of my older brother. Spence used to say, “We achieve by standing on the shoulders of others,” and I will always recognize Spence for everything he did for me, for my colleagues and for ophthalmology around the world. His grace, his smile, his never-ending love and support were a gift to all who knew him. Thank you big brother and thank you God for putting Spence on a city bus in San Diego 40 years ago. The impact that you have had on my life is immeasurable; I will miss you and think about you every day for the rest of my life.
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