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History -
Wills Eye Hospital

By W.S. Tasman, M.D.

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Wills Eye Hospital was founded in 1832 and first opened its doors on Logan Square in 1834. Subsequently, Wills moved to 16th and Spring Garden in 1932, 9th and Walnut in 1980, and now is about to occupy a state-of-the-art newly constructed building across from its present facility. Although Wills will now have had four homes, it has always had a single mission and that has been to provide quality patient care, education, and research.

In 1839 Wills established a residency program to train future ophthalmologists, a program that is ongoing and one of the most sought after in the country. Wills has been a beneficiary of this training in that the residents established an alumni organization known as the Wills Eye Hospital Society. This is a vibrant group of men and women dedicated to perpetuating the Wills residency. Toward that end, among other things, they financially support visiting professors, resident research projects, alumni gatherings at the American Academy of Ophthalmology meeting, and an annual scientific clinical conference.

It was in 1947 that plans were laid for the first medical staff and Society annual conference. This took place in 1949 and was held in the Hospital lobby at 16th and Spring Garden Streets. One of the highlights of the conference was the performance of live surgery on television made possible by Smith, Kline and French whose building was across the street. They installed cameras in the operating room and the operation was witnessed by attendees who sat on folding chairs in the lobby.

After the first conference in 1949 residents soon began looking forward to what became a yearly event. Then in 1962 a trust was established by the Society under the direction of President Lycurgus “Gus” Gurley who was from Johnstown, Pa and Secretary James Parker from Reading, Pa.

During the first five years of the conference a reception was held at the Barclay Hotel as the premier Friday night social event. As an interesting sidelight, the Barclay chef, a man whose name was Caesar, was the creator of the Caesar salad which now bears his name. Saturday night dinners were held at the Union League for ex-residents, but no spouses. This was rectified long ago and currently the social highlight of the weekend is a Friday night dinner dance for ex-residents, current residents, many of the staff, and spouses.

Since its inception the conference has run Thursday, Friday and Saturday until noon. The meeting draws over 300 registrants and features free scientific papers, symposia, and workshops. Two highlights of the meeting are the Bedell Lecture and the Irving H. Leopold Lecture. The Bedell Lecture is named in honor of Dr. Arthur J. Bedell who is one of the most distinguished alumni of the Wills Eye Hospital residency program. He finished in 1902 and arrived yearly by bus from Albany, New York to attend the conference until his death in 1973. Dr. Bedell was a pioneer in fundus photography and compiled an outstanding collection of fundus photographs. He also gave the inaugural Bedell Lecture which took place at the first Wills Eye Conference on Friday, May 6, 1949. The title was “The destruction of the macula, commonly called coloboma”.

In 1987, the Irving Leopold Lecture was established. Dr. Leopold was the first Ophthalmologist-in-Chief at Wills Eye Hospital and was renowned for his work in ocular pharmacology and ocular therapeutics. The first Leopold Lecture was given by Dr. Leopold who spoke on “Ocular therapeutics through the retrospectroscope”. It was a tour de force, as were most of his lectures, since he spoke fluently without a note or a slide.

Over the years many of the greats of ophthalmology have given either the Bedell or Leopold Lecture. The annual conference continues to be one of the highlights for alumni, staff, and current residents. It is a chance to hear the latest developments in ophthalmology and to renew friendships with classmates.

Now as we embark on the 21st century, the Wills Eye Hospital Society continues its dedication to perpetuating the Wills residency program and its quality educational training.

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The original Wills on Logan Circle was created as an asylum for the indigent blind and lame. A typical monthly budget in that era was approximately $250 and included everything from milk to medicines. The City Council of Philadelphia managed the hospital until 1869 when it was taken over by the Board of Directors of City Trusts.
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Ward, Wills Eye Hospital, circa 1900

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Operating room in the Wills on Logan Circle circa 1910. Arthur Bedell stands at the patient’s head. No operating lights or surgical garb were used.
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Emergency Room, Spring Garden Street, circa 1959


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