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May 25, 2017

In Memoriam: William Tasman, MD (1929-2017)

Author Affiliations
  • 1Wills Eye Hospital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
JAMA Ophthalmol. Published online May 25, 2017. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2017.1643

William Tasman, MD, whose tall distinguished figure cast a physical and metaphorical shadow across global ophthalmology, died peacefully at his Chestnut Hill home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, surrounded by his family on March 28. He had fought back courageously from a fall that broke his hip some weeks earlier but ultimately died of congestive heart failure. It was the only time his great heart ever failed him.

William Tasman, MD

His loyalties ran deep. A Philadelphia gentleman, he graduated from Germantown Friends School, Haverford College (where he played single-wing football), and Temple University School of Medicine. He served his country as a captain in the 7100th US Air Force Hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, before returning to complete his residency in ophthalmology at the Wills Eye Hospital. Following residency, he pursued a retina fellowship at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Boston, returning to Philadelphia and Wills Eye Hospital in 1962 to begin his storied tenure at the same hospital where his father had practiced. The year 1962 also marked another important transition in Dr Tasman’s life, as it was then he married the elegant and formidable Alice Lea Mast, embarking on a lifelong partnership that enhanced every aspect of his life and professional career. The rest is history.

He had a meteoric rise through the academic ranks while building one of the most successful retina practices in the country, training a generation of residents and fellows, and substantively contributing to many of the key organizations in our field, with leadership capped by his 22-year career as ophthalmologist-in-chief of Wills Eye Hospital and professor and chair of ophthalmology at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University. He rose through many years of service to become president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, chairman of the American Board of Ophthalmology, president of the American Ophthalmological Society, and a founding member and president of the Retina Society. With almost 300 studies in the peer-reviewed literature and 64 book chapters—the last published in 2016—Dr Tasman’s contributions spanned the field of retina, notably retinal detachment and diabetic retinopathy; perhaps his most transformational work was in pediatric retina and specifically retinopathy of prematurity. An early innovator in cryotherapy for retinopathy of prematurity, he planned, organized, and led the original multicenter Philadelphia-wide randomized trial of laser vs cryotherapy for retinopathy of prematurity that served as the pilot for the larger definitive National Eye Institute–funded trial. His Wills Eye Hospital colleagues Gary Brown, MD, and Bill Benson, MD, recall with admiration those pioneering days and Dr Tasman’s modesty and generosity in sharing the credit for this landmark study.

Dr Tasman was a recipient of many of our specialty’s highest honors, including the Wills Eye Hospital Alumni Society’s Silver Tray Award, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Zentmayer Award, the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Strittmatter Award of the Philadelphia County Medical Society, the Marshall Parks Award of the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, the Lucien Howe Medal of the American Ophthalmological Society, the Gold Medal of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Heed Award, and the Charles Schepens Award of the Retina Society. His remarkable career continued active to the very end. He relished seeing patients in his office, many of them treated as babies who subsequently became his lifelong friends. Dr Tasman contributed an article1 to an Ophthalmology retina supplement in October 2016 and, in his last week, he approved the list of eye books to be deaccessioned from the Jefferson Library for Wills Eye Hospital.

Above and beyond his work as a surgeon-scientist, mentor, and leader, Dr Tasman was a remarkable human being. The Wills Eye Hospital inbox is filled with personal reminiscences from all over the world. He found jobs for residents’ spouses, he thoughtfully remembered family details from long-ago fellowship interviews, he helped friends’ children with Haverford letters of recommendation, and he took time to encourage, recommend, and bolster so very many in all walks of life and all over the world. He was a wonderful family man, with a long and happy marriage and 3 delightful and accomplished children, James, Alice, and Graham, and 5 grandchildren. History buff par excellence, he was a Churchillian raconteur of the first water; an amateur thespian with some Broadway credentials; an avid world traveler; sailor; and tennis enthusiast. Despite his august and intimidating resume, he was unfailingly kind and twinkling. He loved nothing better than to be an active participant in the annual Wills Eye Hospital residents’ skit. A favorite Wills vignette is from the year the residents, discovering with delight that “the Chief” had a patient name a harness racehorse after him, included a real-life clip of “Dr Tasman” trotting his way to first at the racecourse finish line and then relocated to the blueblood’s fictitious home stable. There in his office was Dr T himself, good-naturedly portraying his namesake on all fours by his desk, being patted and fed a carrot. A card to the core, as the camera rolled, the real Dr T improvised with a flourish, snorting, neighing, and rising up to paw the air dramatically.

Surgeon, patriot, historian, scientist, mentor, athlete, husband, father, and best of friends, Dr Tasman’s illustrious mortal life is over. Now immortality is his in the lives, careers, and memories of those he leaves behind. Ave atque vale (“Hail and farewell”).

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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Julia A. Haller, MD, Wills Eye Hospital, 840 Walnut St, Ste 1510, Philadelphia, PA 19107-5109 (jhaller@willseye.org).

Published Online: May 25, 2017. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2017.1643

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: The author has completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest and none were reported.

Fine  SL, Goldberg  MF, Tasman  W.  Historical perspectives on the management of macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and retinal detachment: personal reminiscences.  Ophthalmology. 2016;123(10S):S64-S77.PubMedArticle