From the Start, He Envisioned a World-Class Facility

There weren’t many years in the beginning of Ralph Hamilton’s life when he wasn’t involved in healthcare in one way or another, and it appears there won’t be many in the latter part of his life, either.

The esteemed ophthalmologist turned 83 recently and has no plans to retire, even though his legacy was secured in 2005 with the opening of the Hamilton Eye Institute.

“I may have to (retire) before I want to, but I don’t want to,” he said. “I still enjoy seeing patients.”

Although he is a man of vision, as a youngster in East Tennessee, he hardly could have envisioned that a renowned eye institute would someday bear his name. His introduction to the practice of medicine came by way of assisting his father, an eye, ear, nose and throat doctor. After school, Hamilton would accompany him on trips to patients’ homes in the Knoxville area. During cataract surgery, Hamilton would hold a light that illuminated the patients’ eyes.

The procedures took place in homes because many of the patients they saw lacked the means or insurance to afford the hospital stay of seven to 10 days that was required back then.

“He catered to them; he came from that kind of background,” Hamilton said. “People didn’t have money in East Tennessee in those days.

 “He didn’t operate until they were essentially blind in both eyes. We’d go back later and put the big, thick glasses on them, which is all we had after cataract surgery back then, and they were ecstatically happy. I decided then that this was the life for me. That’s really what inspired me. I got into ophthalmology early. I decided as a teenager that I wanted to do that for a living.”

The same bug that Hamilton caught has proved to be contagious in his family. Two sons are also ophthalmologists. A grandson is in medical school, and “we hope he’ll do the same thing,” Hamilton said.

Going back even further, Hamilton’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side was a general practitioner who traveled by horseback to see patients between Maryville and Cades Cove in East Tennessee.

After starting at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville at age 16, Hamilton went on to earn a medical degree from UT College of Medicine in 1952. Later that decade, he earned a master’s degree in ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania. While he was there, he was a full-time resident at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. His experience at Wills proved to be pivotal.

Wills dates to 1832, when James Wills Jr., a Quaker merchant, gave $116,000 to Philadelphia to be used for care of “the indigent, blind and lame.” Wills Eye Hospital opened in 1834.

“From that, it grew into a great organization,” Hamilton said, “which I was fortunate to be trained in, and I wanted to bring that sort of thing to Memphis when I came here in 1959.”

The idea for a Memphis eye institute was thus conceived, but turning idea into reality was more difficult than Hamilton imagined.

“I tried for 30 years to do it, unsuccessfully,” he said, “until we did do it in 1995 with the advent of bringing Dr. Barrett Haik here to chair the department. I was instrumental in bringing him here from New Orleans, but he’s the one who really did the eye institute. They named it after me, but he was the one who did it. I had the idea, but I didn’t have the know-how to raise money, get grants and all that sort of thing that he did.”

Haik came in as chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at UTHSC and, Hamilton added, to continue his work in cancer, specifically cancers of the eye and face. Hamilton said the chance to work at St. Jude was instrumental in Haik’s decision to come. Haik led the capital campaign that ultimately made the Hamilton Eye Institute happen. Toward that end, Hamilton contributed $6 million of his own money.

“Baptist Hospital moved out east,” he said, “and donated to us this building, which is probably a $65 million building.  We had to renovate it all, but Baptist contributed a lot.”

From the beginning, Hamilton envisioned a world-class facility. “It’s what we want, and I think it’s what we have,” he said. “We have patients from all over the world.”

Not only does HEI train residents to become ophthalmologists, it describes its mission as bringing together “researchers, clinicians, students, nurses and technicians. . .  under one roof to study the eye, share knowledge and care for patients.” Those patients, Hamilton noted, include the indigent.

Aside from his training in Philadelphia and two years in the Army, Hamilton has spent his entire career in Memphis. The city is much better for it, not only for his medical achievements but also a broad spectrum of philanthropy. He and his wife, Barbara, were honored in 2008 as the University of Tennessee’s Philanthropists of the Year.

As he once told Tennessee Alumnus magazine, “Giving is a learned thing. But once you do it, you like it.”

Other honors have included a UTHSC College of Medicine’s Outstanding Alumnus Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Memphis Business Journal.

Hamilton has reduced his workload in recent years, but only slightly. He works 4 ½ days a week now – “five years ago I quit working on Saturdays.” He performs surgery fairly rarely now.

Away from work, he rides horses and still plays singles tennis.

Looking back, he can hardly think of any disappointments in a long and distinguished career.

“I’ve been pretty blessed,” he said. “I don’t have much to complain about.”