William S. Tasman, 87, eminent Philadelphia eye doctor and philanthropist

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William S. Tasman, with wife, Alice Lea Tasman

William S. Tasman, 87, of Wyndmoor, a distinguished ophthalmologist and philanthropist whose trailblazing work with laser therapy at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia spared premature babies a lifetime of blindness, died Tuesday, March 28, of congestive heart failure at home.

Dr. Tasman, longtime ophthalmologist-in-chief at Wills Eye and chairman of the department of ophthalmology at Jefferson Medical College, developed a technique to treat retinopathy of prematurity, a blinding disease in premature babies.

When afflicted infants are born, their vision can be compromised because the network of blood vessels in the eye grows to the point of encroaching on other parts of the eye, leading to blindness. In early clinical trials, Dr. Tasman used laser photocoagulation to correct the growth of the vessels.

Dr. Tasman was responsible for dramatically reducing blindness for hundreds of thousands of babies around the world, because of the patients he personally treated throughout his career and because doctors now rely on that procedure to save eyesight in premature children.  

“Treating the eyes of these weak, fragile, premature babies is just about the hardest thing you can do in ophthalmology,” said Dr. Bill Benson, Dr. Tasman’s original medical partner. “It is heroic.”

Dr. Tasman also was at the forefront of a national initiative to help prevent blindness in patients with diabetes. The disease, diabetic retinopathy, slowly destroys the fine latticework of blood vessels at the back of the eye, Dr. Tasman told Newsday in January 2001.

At that time, he estimated that each year 1,200 to 2,400 people in the United States were losing their vision to diabetic retinopathy. "There are 60 million people on Medicare," Dr. Tasman told the newspaper, "and 6 percent of them have diabetes. People with diabetes are 25 times more likely to become blind than those without the disease."

Dr. Tasman arranged a collaboration among the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Optometric Association, and the Health Care Financing Administration, the federal agency that oversees Medicare. In the resulting program, people 65 and older who had not had an eye exam in three years were matched with an eye doctor. The ensuing office visit was fully paid for by Medicare. So was a year of care that followed.

The results of these and similar initiatives under Dr. Tasman's leadership were palpable. David Parke, CEO of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, said, “Few ophthalmologists of his generation have had a more profound impact on our profession.”

Born and reared in Philadelphia, Dr. Tasman graduated from Germantown Friends School and in 1951 from Haverford College.

He completed a medical degree at Temple University School of Medicine in 1955.  After an internship at Philadelphia General Hospital, followed by a year of study at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School and military service in Germany at the 7100th USAF Hospital, he became a resident at Wills Eye in 1961. He was a fellow, specializing in the retina, at Boston’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in 1961 and 1962.

In 1974, Dr. Tasman founded Mid-Atlantic Retina, a regional practice and part of Wills Eye. From 1985 to 2009, he was ophthalmologist-in-chief of Wills Eye, where he trained 161 residents and 199 retinal fellows.

When he announced that he would step down from his position at Wills Eye, Dr. Tasman looked back on the evolution of his specialty. “When I started, a cataract patient was admitted for a week. Now it’s an outpatient procedure, and they see immediately,” he told the Modern Medicine Network’s Ophthalmology Times.

At various times, he was chairman of the American Board of Ophthalmology and president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Ophthalmological Society, and the Retina Society, all prestigious organizations in his field.

Dr. Tasman received many accolades from across the globe. Locally, he was honored in 2011 with an endowed chair at Wills Eye.

"The chair honors the Tasman name and contributions in perpetuity, and endows the position of ophthalmologist-in-chief so that future recipients of the Tasman Chair will be able to sustain the Wills tradition of excellence in patient care, education and research," the hospital said in a release.

In 1961, Dr. Tasman married Alice Lea Mast, a fund-raising consultant. The two settled in Chestnut Hill to rear three children. Known as a powerhouse couple in the philanthropic community, the Tasmans raised money for Wills Eye, blind artists, and various organizations in the ophthalmology community.

Dr. Tasman was known for his kind, gracious manner.  He enjoyed medical history, reading, and boating. He loved his family and dogs, especially his German shepherd, Lucy.

Besides his wife, he is survived by children James Barclay, William Graham, and Alice Tasman Morris  and five grandchildren.

A memorial service to celebrate his life is planned for 11 a.m. Friday, April 28, at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia. Interment is private.

Memorial donations may be made to Wills Eye Hospital, 840 Walnut St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19107; the church at the address above; or the SPCA of Philadelphia, 350 E. Erie Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19134.

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