Ophthalmic community mourns loss of refractive pioneer Spencer Thornton, MD

October 29, 2019
David Hutton

The ophthalmic community is mourning the loss of Spencer Thornton, MD, a pioneer in refractive surgery who became a champion for his profession and a role model for younger peers. 

The ophthalmic community is mourning the loss of Spencer Thornton, MD, a pioneer in refractive surgery who became a champion for his profession and a role model for younger peers.

Dr. Thornton passed away peacefully Oct. 26 in his home in Nashville, TN, surrounded by family and friends. He was 90.

Born in West Palm Beach, FL, on Sept. 16, 1929, Dr. Thornton’s family soon made North Carolina their home, where he became active in Boy Scouts, achieving the rank of Eagle Scout and subsequently earning Eagle Palms.

Dr. Thornton earned his MD from the Bowman Gray School of Medicine of Wake Forest University, and completed his residency in ophthalmology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He was a clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of Tennessee, Memphis. He also served his country as a captain in the United States Army Medical Corps during the Korean conflict as an instructor in traumatic surgery at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX.

During his career, Dr. Thornton received numerous awards, including the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Honor Award and Wake Forest University School of Medicine’s Distinguished Achievement Award. He also attended Louisville Theological Seminary. He is listed in Best Doctors in America, and was one of “America’s Best Ophthalmologists” by Ophthalmology Times. He was named Sir Harold Ridley Distinguished Visiting Professor of Ophthalmology at University of Tennessee in 2001.

Dr. Thornton also served his country as a captain in the United States Army Medical Corps during the Korean conflict as an instructor in traumatic surgery at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX. He continued to assume the role of instructor by teaching and speaking around the world on cutting edge ophthalmic procedures and nutraceuticals.

Dr. Thornton was preceded in death by his wife, Ginnie. He is survived by his four children, Steve (Fina), David, Cooper, and Beth Rader (David), along with his nine grandchildren, Anderson, Alexandra (Shane), Anna Kate, Thomas, Andrew, Grace, John, Jet, and Milo.

Forging a legacy

In a career that spanned several decades, Dr. Thornton forged a legacy not only as a skilled surgeon, but also as a teacher. As he traveled the world, he helped ophthalmologists in developing countries learn the latest techniques to improve eye care for their patients. He also developed instruments which would help him and others perform safer, more effective surgeries that offered better outcomes for patients. He reached the pinnacle of the field by being named National Ophthalmologist of the Year.

Robert H. Osher, MD, professor of ophthalmology, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and medical director emeritus, Cincinnati Eye Institute, remembers his mentor as a compassionate leader. Dr. Osher recalled an incident in the early 1980s. He had made a presentation on a 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,” he recalled.

Feeling defeated after encountering a less-than-receptive audience, Dr. Osher left the meeting and retreated to the back of an empty San Diego city bus where he was overcome from the verbal beating he had endured during the session.

“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,” Dr. Osher recalled. “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.”

That encounter was the genesis of a lifelong friendship, said Dr. Osher, who was selected to eulogize his friend and mentor. 

Leadership qualities

That compassion also made Dr. Thornton such an effective leader. Throughout his career, he was in demand as a lecturer. He also wrote extensively, developing and editing chapters in a number of textbooks on ophthalmology. Many ophthalmologists today are impacted by his work. He also published more than 250 articles in ophthalmology journals, up until his 90th birthday last month.  

With a drive to educate and advance the field of ophthalmology, Dr. Thornton, with his wife Ginnie, traveled to countries on six continents to educate ophthalmologists.

“I believe Spence was the most popular surgeon to ever visit Africa,” Dr. Osher recounted.

Dr. Thornton was welcomed and befriended by South Africa’s President F.W. de Klerk. He crossed paths with Nelson Mandela, though he regretted never formally meeting the iconic South African leader. Dr. Thornton was equally popular in Europe, where he developed treasured friendships with innovators like French surgeon Danièle S. Aron-Rosa, MD.

Dr. Thornton once treated Elvis Presley and he appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

With this breadth of experience, Dr. Thornton served in many leadership roles. He was a past president of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (1997–1999) and served on the board of directors of the American College of Eye Surgeons, the International Society for Refractive Surgery, the Hawaiian Eye Foundation and the International Refractive Surgery Club. He also was co-founder of Biosyntrx in 1998, and served as president and chief medical officer. He continued to serve as a director.

ASCRS honor

Earlier this year, ASCRS gave Dr. Thornton the Lifetime Achievement Award during its annual meeting in San Diego.

“To see thousands of surgeons on their feet, applauding his career, made me so proud,” Dr. Osher said. “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.”

Peter McDonnell, MD, director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times, noted that while Dr. Thornton was a generation ahead of him, they met when Dr. McDonnell was a young assistant professor.

“He was famous as a surgical innovator with a strong interest in the nascent field of refractive surgery, and I was an unknown junior person who was eager to learn,” he recounted. “Spencer was a remarkably kind and convivial person who was generous with his time and advice to this assistant professor, and I will always be appreciative to him for welcoming my thoughts and participation.”

Dr. McDonnell also touted Dr. Thornton’s academic output.

“His scholarly output in terms of papers and books speaks for itself, and his ability to turn ideas into products that touched patients in our clinics and operating rooms marked him as an expert in ‘translational’ research before that term came into vogue,” he said. “In my view, he was equally a ‘success’ as an innovative ophthalmic surgeon and as a person.”

'Humble nature'

Uday Devgan, MD, FACS, FRCS, in private practice at Devgan Eye Surgery, Los Angeles partner, Specialty Surgical Center, Beverly Hills clinical professor of ophthalmology, Jules Stein Eye Institute, UCLA School of Medicine, and chief of ophthalmology, Olive View UCLA Medical Center, remembered Dr. Thorndon as a “remarkable ophthalmologist and dear friend, whose humble nature and kind generosity connected him with so many colleagues across the U.S, and around the world.”

Dr. Devgan noted that Dr. Thornton was a gifted surgeon, and one of the early adopters of phaco.

“He designed many instruments, devices, and implants that are still widely used today such as the Thornton fixation ring,” he said. “With his amazing hands, he was an accomplished cataract surgeon, and also an accomplished magician, appearing on the Tonight Show multiple times to showcase that talent.”

Dr. Devgan accompanied Dr. Thornton on a trip to South Africa in 2011, where the physicians spent many hours talking about ophthalmology and life.

“The most important lesson that I learned from Spence was prioritizing time with family and friends, because it is those relationships which give life meaning,” he said. “Thank you, Spence, for making ophthalmology, and our world, a better place.”

Visitation will be held from 10:30 a.m. to noon Saturday, Nov. 9 at the First Presbyterian Church Cheek House, located at 4815 Franklin Road, Nashville, TN with a memorial service immediately following in the Chapel.

Following the service, family and friends are invited to 5070 Villa Crest Drive for fellowship and to celebrate Dr. Thornton’s life. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can either be made to the Dr. Spencer Thornton Fund at Friends of Radnor Lake, 1160 Otter Creek Road, Nashville, TN 37220 http://www.radnorlake.org or to the Dr. Spencer Thornton Fund at Alive Hospice, 1718 Patterson St., Nashville, TN 37203 http://www.alivehospice.org/donatenow.