When George Oral Waring III passed away last month, there was a collective cry of sadness and loss and appreciation from the community of eye surgeons. Tributes to him appeared in articles and blogs, interviews and bulletin boards. It was unprecedented in my lifetime. I was a bit puzzled. Other great ophthalmologists have died, too, yet none had received such fanfare.
Many remembered him for his contributions to our field, a few of which I list:
- The PERK [Prospective Evaluation of Radial Keratotomy] Study, the first major study of a vision correction procedure
- His book Refractive Keratotomy,1 the greatest book ever published in the specialty of refractive surgery
- The Journal of Refractive Surgery, which he edited for 21 years
- The first approval of a laser for vision correction in the United States, for which he was a principal investigator and for which he presented the data to the FDA
- Uniform standards for reporting refractive surgical results
- The word LASIK, which George coined
- 259 publications of various sorts in peer-reviewed journals
- Invited lectures in more than 60 countries
- A medal named after him, the Waring Medal, given every year to a young investigator. Even more remarkably, the medal was established while he was still alive
These accomplishments, though amazing, are not the reason his passing received so much attention. Many of the tributes recalled how unique George was. He was the only person we knew who would kayak to his wedding in a waterproof tuxedo. Who else would make a first ascent of a peak in Nepal but only after he had his secretary hire a Sherpa to deliver his favorite granola to base camp? Better than anyone, he could explain the most complex topic simply. He had a Dictaphone surgically implanted in his left wrist. He could cram 18 hours of work and 12 hours of play into a single day. He offended people by speaking the truth about bad ideas. His eyes would twinkle when he said something provocative, inviting us to react. He slept in a sleeping bag in his office for days at a time so he could get more work done. He reached out with encouraging words for young investigators wherever he went in the world. He had a glowing warmth for us, his friends. His infectious enthusiasm made ophthalmology the most exciting thing in the world when we came into his orbit.
Many of these tributes recalled George's fearlessness. Most of us decide in adolescence that there are whole areas of human endeavor that we are no good at. I can't sing. I can't dance. I can't speak in front of an audience. I'm not an athlete. We stop doing these things because we don't [want] to venture into areas where people could judge us and find us wanting. George missed that important developmental milestone. He delighted in trying everything. He kayaked, mountain climbed, heli-skied, scuba-dived, collected African art and Italian art, became a jazz connoisseur, moved to Paris, moved back to Atlanta, moved to Saudi Arabia. He once said, “I don't take chances. I take risks. Risks are calculated.”
In adolescence, most of us spend a lot of time worrying about what other people think of us. George missed that developmental milestone also. One day, George and I were scheduled to play squash. At the last possible moment, George showed up at the squash court. He stripped down to his underwear in the public hallway and put on his squash clothes. He didn't want to waste the time walking to the men's locker room and back to change. It didn't bother him at all that somebody might see an Emory professor in his skivvies in public. He had almost no fear of embarrassment. He was unafraid to make unusual choices to make his life better, regardless of what others may think.
I loved George in part because I owe my career to him. I had applied to George's fellowship because I wanted an academic career, and his fellowship program included an extra year of research. He offered, and I accepted a spot in his program. Then, I changed my mind; I had become disillusioned with the petty politics of my residency program and decided that I didn't want to be a professor after all. I certainly didn't want to waste an extra year doing research. I called George with great trepidation and broke the news that I [had] decided to look at my options elsewhere. I was sure that he would be furious, because I had taken a spot he could have given to some other highly qualified applicant. I expected a severe dressing down. Instead, I got a sympathetic ear. We had a long talk about my career goals, my disillusionment with academics, and he blessed my search to find the right path for me. George connected to me that day in a deeply human way. In talking to him, I found again the excitement of discovery and the joy of a great teacher. He was everything I hoped a university professor would be. In the end, there was no one in the world I would rather work with. I spent 2 wonderful years with him and went on to a faculty appointment myself. I've had the richest career I can possibly imagine, thanks to him.
There's the answer: the extraordinary outpouring of emotion after his death reflected how many people he had profoundly touched, as he had touched me. You see, George had missed another developmental milestone in adolescence: he had failed to build layers of pretense and protection around his true self. His most remarkable act of fearlessness was that he held his heart and soul right up front, just below the surface, ready to touch and be touched by anyone who cared to connect. He was human in a way that few are.
His achievements were extraordinary, but a few others have achieved amazing things. What made him unique was that his spectacular career was just a vehicle to connect him to people. His achievements were the game he played so he could touch, inspire, and encourage people of all ages, all over the world. His life holds a lesson for all of us: be fearless in connection, fearless in passion, and fearless in creating a life that is completely unique.
1. Waring III GO. Refractive Keratotomy for Myopia and Astigmatism. St. Louis, MO: Mosby-Year Book; 1991.