My mother, Lena Marie Link, descended from German farmers. Her parents, who emigrated to the United States in the mid-19th century, valued education, creativity, the arts, mutual support, and living fairly, responsibly and usefully. My father’s progenitors were German artisans and farmers. His parents emigrated about the same time as his future parents-in-law, also settling in upstate New York, where his father became a Lutheran minister. My father, Edmund B. Spaeth, was the youngest of eight children, did not comply with his father’s decree that he was to become a minister, and from the age of 14 supported himself emotionally, intellectually and financially. From high school he went directly to medical school, then became an Army surgeon in France during World War I. Following his service, he developed new plastic surgery methods at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to treat severely burned soldiers, then developed an internationally respected ophthalmology practice. He eventually became Chief at Wills Eye Hospital and Chief of the Graduate School of Ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania.
My parents took me on trips nationally and internationally: to islands, museums, countrysides, and parks. They encouraged me to question and learn about everything. When I was five, our family started an annual attendance at the Bach Festival in Bethlehem, PA. A few years later my mother started picking me up at school so we could go to the Friday afternoon concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra, following which she took me backstage, where I spoke with a few of the orchestra members about the concert. She also introduced me to ballet and opera performances at the Academy of Music.
My three older brothers and I were students at Germantown Friends School, from nursery to grade 12. The non-evangelical, yet pervasive ethos of the Quakers became a central part of me. The beliefs of the Society of Friends–as translated through me–include: avoiding violence of any sort, connecting directly with the universal and not through an intermediary such as a priest, allocating time for quietness, pondering and listening to what cannot be heard during “activity,” neither parroting nor disparaging the words of others based on their source, trying to connect with the goodness present in every person, believing and doing what is honest and beneficial, aware that one’s opinion is inevitably biased, and not doing something just because it is in fashion. In nursery school Walter Corson and I developed a lifelong friendship, sharing a love of birds and streams, trees and flowers, poetry and music, and, later, camping in national and state parks. We both tried to make the world a better place for life on earth. When finishing Yale I was concerned about whether I could support myself and a family as a poet or a composer, and about whether or not I would create anything of value. Not knowing what else to do, but having watched my father improve the lives of thousands as a result of his courage and skills as a physician and by sharing his knowledge by teaching and writing, I enrolled in Harvard Medical School.
WHEN MEDICINE BECAME A LIFESTYLE
In 1961, while a resident at the Wills Eye Hospital, I discovered a previously unknown disease, homocystinuria. Working with G. Winston Barber, I found it to be a relatively common metabolic cause for abnormal development and intellectual disability; we also found a partially effective treatment, Vitamin B6, pyridoxine. The same year I was the first person to use a then-new antiparasitic drug, thiabendazole, to treat a sick young adult woman with severe trichinosis. I started understanding that by observing carefully, asking relevant questions and then finding answers, I could make lives better. In 1963 I enlisted in the U.S. Public Health Service, primarily because I did not want to fight in the Korean War, and spent two years at the National Institutes of Health, where I was assigned to the field of glaucoma.
Since that time I have developed an international influence in ophthalmology, partly as a result of the 400 or so papers published in refereed journals, the 200+ editorials, the 23 books, one entitled Ophthalmic Surgery: Principles and Practice (almost the same title as one written years earlier by my father), and the 300 or so trainees who now work in 24 countries on six continents. I found better ways to examine and characterize the eye, and worked on the development of methods to test vision and functional ability of the eye. Some of my students have become well-known, but those less visible contribute as much or even more toward making the world better. These activities have led to awards; around 2015 a survey of ophthalmologists internationally concluded I was the "most influential ophthalmologist in the world.”
While in medical school I came to realize that the medical profession seemed to place inappropriate emphasis on theory, algorithms and laboratory research, rather than on careful observation and logical reasoning for the purpose of helping people and keeping communities healthy. Many doctors utilize statistical theory to define health and disease, ignoring outliers and qualitative information such as patients' answers to the apparently simple question: "How are you?" As I became more experienced, patients’ true concerns became increasingly important to me. These are (among other things) how well they feel, costs of care, convenience, and ability to function in daily life. I came to believe that my objective was to discover the best way to promote true health (physical, artistic, spiritual, financial and emotional) and to encourage people to learn how to take care of themselves, which includes knowing how and when to involve others - such as doctors - to help, not to hurt (or worse, end up in a financial hole). When people become well in the real world they benefit and so does the world at large.
Our world is burning up, disastrously overpopulated, and increasingly polarized. We have the obscenely rich pitted against the desperately poor. Nothing that is not human has a vote. Everything–including humanity–is at stake because of what people have done. Living things are decreasing exponentially, as is the beauty, wonder, and future of life on earth. Technology is not the solution to the world’s great problems. It never was and never will be. It can help, but it can also harm us depending upon how it is used.
In short, the world is desperately sick and cannot recover unless we first acknowledge that we have needlessly altered our planet in a terrible way. However, it may not be too late to change our habits.
My greatest goal is to try to become a pragmatic, inclusive, and good person. I wish to benefit other living things–not just human beings. I hope that by sharing my thoughts and my art, I will help others move towards a more sustainable, healthier life, becoming more grateful for and more aware of the wonder of the real world.