December 2019


A tribute to Spencer Thornton, MD

Spencer Thornton, MD
Source: ASCRS

Robert Osher, MD, remembered meeting Dr. Thornton in the 1980s, becoming lifelong friends.
Source: Robert Osher, MD

Arun Gulani, MD, remembered receiving a 1st prize award at the ASCRS Film Festival from Dr. Thornton.
Source: Arun Gulani, MD

Dr. Thornton (fifth from left) received the ASCRS Film Festival Lifetime Acheivement Award in 2019.
Source: ASCRS


Spencer Thornton, MD, ASCRS president from 1997–1999, died on Oct. 26, 2019, in Nashville. Dr. Thornton was born on Sept. 16, 1929, earned his bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University, his medical doctorate from Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Wake Forest University, and completed ophthalmology residency at Vanderbilt University, according to his obituary published in the Tennessean.
Dr. Thornton, in addition to leading ASCRS during his tenure as president, is credited with starting the ASCRS Film Festival in 1982, which some doctors note spurred the creation of similar ophthalmic film festivals at other society meetings.
Dr. Thornton was an early adopter of phacoemulsification, he developed many surgical instruments and ideas, and published more than 250 peer-reviewed articles and dozens of books and book chapters.
He received several honors throughout his life, including the first ASCRS Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, presented at the 2019 Film Festival.
In addition to his leadership as part of ASCRS, Dr. Thornton was active in the International Society of Refractive Surgery, the International Intra-Ocular Implant Club, the American College of Eye Surgeons, and the Hawaiian Eye Foundation. He was also involved with the Southern African Cataract and Refractive Surgery Congress.
Dr. Thornton is preceded in death by his wife Ginnie Thornton. He is survived by his children Steve (Fina), David, Cooper, and Beth Rader (David), as well as nine grandchildren, according to the Tennessean.

‘Spence just cared very much about ASCRS’

Robert Osher, MD, remembered Dr. Thornton as a teacher, innovator, family man, and friend.
An early supporter of new methods in cataract surgery and refractive surgery, Dr. Osher said Dr. Thornton took the time to teach other ophthalmologists about these techniques. “I don’t think I’ve met anybody in my entire career who was so giving of his time,” Dr. Osher said.
Dr. Osher also emphasized the devotion Dr. Thornton had for ASCRS, serving as its president, teaching courses, and founding and then judging the Film Festival for three decades. “Spence just cared very much about ASCRS,” Dr. Osher said.
Outside of ophthalmology, Dr. Osher said Dr. Thornton enjoyed country music and was an experienced magician, practicing the craft on television shows, such as Johnny Carson, and writing books on the topic as well. He also described Dr. Thornton as “a very strong family man [and] a pillar of his community in Nashville” who was humble and never had a bad word to say about anybody. It was a privilege to be his friend.”

“A ‘brother’ to all who knew him”

Stephen A. Obstbaum, MD, described Dr. Thornton as a caring person who made those who were in his presence feel special.
“He was a ‘brother’ to all who knew him,” Dr. Obstbaum said.
Dr. Obstbaum recalled asking Dr. Thornton to be ASCRS’s representative to the American National Standards Institute. “He embraced this position enthusiastically and ensured that our voice was heard on matters germane to cataract and refractive surgery.”
“My memories of Spence will include his endearing charm, his sincere manner, and his engaging warmth,” Dr. Obstbaum said. “He was a cherished colleague and a friend. Spence had a unique way of indicating that you had made it into the inner circle of his special club—the sterling silver collar tips. I’m certain that each of us, who have been the beneficiaries of this gift, even if they’re not currently worn, will smile when we see them and remember the great guy who gave them to us.”

‘A role model for how to live a life as an ophthalmologist’

Eric Donnenfeld, MD, described Dr. Thornton as “a pioneer who was always accessible, supportive, and a prince of a man.”
“He was a role model for how to live a life as an ophthalmologist and family man. For me, he will be remembered as a man who made a difference in everything he did,” Dr. Donnenfeld said.

‘Diversely talented’

Richard Lindstrom, MD, described Dr. Thornton as “one of the most diversely talented friends I have enjoyed in ophthalmology.”
“A true Renaissance man, he was a superb clinician and surgeon, practice owner, and manager, global educator, ASCRS president, innovator and inventor of surgical techniques and instruments, consultant to industry, business owner and founder, elite magician, and so much fun to share an evening with that he was a repeat guest on the Johnny Carson show,” Dr. Lindstrom said of this “truly unforgettable man and friend.”

A ‘genuine human being’

Arun Gulani, MD, said he and Dr. Thornton met at podiums many times while teaching at conferences around the world, especially in South Africa.
“Nearly two decades ago, he traveled to witness my work on Corneoplastique and called it a ‘beacon’ in the world of eye surgery. I still remember the twinkle in his eyes as he said and wrote that down,” Dr. Gulani recalled.
He also recalled how special the ASCRS Film Festival was due to Dr. Thornton’s “larger-than-life presence.” Dr. Gulani said when he received an award at the Film Festival from Dr. Thornton it was a dream fulfilled.
Dr. Gulani said Dr. Thornton’s “movie star personality and flamboyance” and ready wit set him apart and enhanced their friendship. Dr. Gulani recalled how Dr. Thornton seemed to admire his fashion designs.
Dr. Thornton was a “genuine human being who could relate to many levels,” Dr. Gulani said. “To his last day he was involved in innovations in ophthalmology, and I have been approached to complete that project—I will.”

A tribute to Spencer Thornton, MD A tribute to Spencer Thornton, MD
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