RETINA PIONEER

George W. Blankenship, Jr., MD

1940-2020
Contributed by Jerome P. Fisher, MD, Harry W. Flynn Jr., MD, FASRS, and Michael Saad

George W. Blankenship Jr., MD, was a talented innovator of vitreoretinal surgery, and one of the world’s leading experts in the management of patients with diabetic retinopathy.

Dr. Blankenship received his medical degree in 1966 from Tulane University School of Medicine, where he also completed a residency in ophthalmology. He then completed a fellowship in vitreoretinal surgery at Washington University in St Louis. Dr. Blankenship joined the faculty of the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in 1973 and led efforts in the management of patients with diabetic retinopathy for 16 years.  

At Bascom Palmer, he served as principal investigator on the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-sponsored Diabetic Retinopathy Study, the Early Treatment Diabetic Retinopathy Study, and the Diabetic Retinopathy Vitrectomy Study, each of which demonstrated a beneficial effect of treatment.  

During the early 1970s, Dr. Blankenship also worked closely with Robert Machemer, MD, as pars plana vitrectomy rapidly became an accepted form of surgical treatment for complex retinal problems throughout the world.

“George was energetic, and his enthusiasm was infectious among the Bascom Palmer faculty and staff,” said John G. Clarkson, MD, CEO emeritus of the American Board of Ophthalmology. “He was also known for his impatience, and on more than one occasion would go to the floor to bring his patient to the OR when he felt the orderly was taking too long. He was more than a colleague—he was a friend.”

Dr. Harry Flynn adds, “George, beloved by colleagues and patients alike, was a superstar at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute and in the world of ophthalmology. His concern for all of his co-workers and their families endeared him to everyone. His funny antics and quick wit kept us entertained.”

Dr. Blankenship left Bascom Palmer in 1989 to become chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at Penn State University. As a highly respected leader in ophthalmology, he served as president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and was a member of the American Ophthalmological Society, The Club Jules Gonin, and The Retina Society.

Dr. Blankenship’s scholarly metrics included over 200 publications in peer-reviewed journals; 16 named lectures; and over 300 presentations at regional, national, and international meetings. He trained more than 100 residents and fellows, chaired many national committees in ophthalmology, and lectured before thousands of his colleagues over his career. Dr. Blankenship had a tremendous impact on ophthalmology with his leadership style characterized by integrity, humility, and humor.  

Following his retirement, he and his wife of 54 years, Barbara, moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where for more than a decade, he volunteered weekly at the Volunteer in Medicine Clinic, serving the eye care needs of the medically underserved and their families who live or work on Hilton Head Island.

He and Barbara had 2 daughters, both of whom went on to have 2 children of their own. No single accomplishment in his life could equal the pride and joy he got from his family—his first priority and primary source of happiness.

Dr. George Blankenship left a strong, favorable impression on all those who knew and worked with him. He was a gifted surgeon, an extremely time-efficient and brilliant practitioner, a devoted teacher and mentor, an innovator in the treatment of retinal diseases, and a leader of organized ophthalmology. Throughout his long and storied career, George made his mark, always maintaining his unique personality and lovable sense of humor.

highlights

1970s

Served as principal investigator on the NIH- sponsored Diabetic Retinopathy Study and the Diabetic Retinopathy Vitrectomy Study 

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1989

Served as a titled professor and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at Penn State University

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1994

Received the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Senior Achievement Award 

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1995

Became a councilor representing the Association of University Professors of Ophthalmology 

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2001

Elected president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology

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2004

Received the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Community Service by the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine

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Academic Appointment

1973-1989

  • Faculty member and principal investigator of the NIH-sponsored Diabetic Retinopathy Study, Bascom Palmer Eye Institute

1989-2006

  • Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology, Penn State University

Education & Training

Fellowship in retinal disease and surgery: Washington University in St. Louis, 1970-1971

Residency: Tulane University School of Medicine, 1970

Medical School: Tulane University School of Medicine, 1966

Undergraduate: University of Missouri, 1958