Ophthalmology Department Named for John Hardesty, MD

From the summer 2017 issue of The Spirit of Washington University

By all accounts, St. Louis ophthalmologist John Hardesty, MD, was a hero. As a member of the U.S. Army Medical Corps during World War I, he risked his life to help soldiers on the front lines. After the war, he sent assistance to Polish and Russian soldiers he met while he was a prisoner of war in Germany. And as a physician, he helped pioneer treatments for glaucoma, provided free care to those in need, and advocated for laws to benefit the blind.

“When he died, so many people came to his funeral,” says Jane Hardesty Poole, AB ’61, Dr. Hardesty’s daughter. “Some were in tears because he had saved their or their child’s eyesight. My mother and I had no idea he had helped so many people.”

To honor her father’s memory and his legacy of service to his profession and society, Ms. Poole has committed $10 million to the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine. In recognition, the department will be renamed the John F. Hardesty, MD, Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

“Our department has a long history of advancing understanding of eye diseases and vision loss, particularly in the area of glaucoma,” says Todd Margolis, MD, PhD, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. “It is fitting that the department now will bear the name of a man whose life’s work involved preserving vision and improving the quality of life for glaucoma patients.”

Ms. Poole’s gift will create an endowment that will enhance the department’s leadership. Funds from the endowment will support ophthalmology research, clinical care, and training, and will help the department recruit and retain outstanding physician-scientists.

Dr. Hardesty earned bachelor’s and medical degrees from Saint Louis University in 1914 and completed an internship and residency at St. Louis City Hospital. He practiced medicine in St. Louis briefly before enlisting in the Army in 1917. He received an honorable discharge with the rank of captain in March 1919.

Dr. Hardesty joined the Saint Louis University School of Medicine faculty in 1920 and served as an associate professor from 1934 to 1953. He was acting chair of the school’s ophthalmology department from 1950 to 1953, the year of his death.

Jane Hardesty Poole with R. Lawrence Tychsen, MD,
who was installed as the inaugural John F. Hardesty, MD, Distinguished Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences in May 2012

In 1934, he wrote a thesis for membership in the American Ophthalmological Society titled “Treatment of Glaucoma by Systemic Measures” that discussed using epinephrine to treat the disease systemically, either intravenously or through injections. His research represented the first attempt to treat glaucoma in this way. Epinephrine in eye drop form still is used to treat the disease today. Dr. Hardesty’s work laid the foundation for the development of the oral drug Diamox for glaucoma in the 1950s by Washington University ophthalmology professor Bernard Becker, MD.

Dr. Hardesty provided free eye care to residents of the Blind Girls’ Home, Missouri School for the Blind, and other schools and orphanages, and to patients throughout the region during the course of his career. He served as medical director for the St. Louis Society for the Blind and helped found the Missouri Sponsoring Committee of the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness. He was awarded the Robert Johnson Prize for research on the causes of blindness in Missouri.

Ms. Poole, who was only 14 when her father died, remembers him as a kind and loving man. “I adored him,” she says. “We would walk down to dinner every night on our wide staircase with our arms around one another. He gave me the unconditional love that every child needs.”

She previously honored her father by establishing the John F. Hardesty, MD, Distinguished Professorship in Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Washington University. The position is held by pediatric ophthalmologist R. Lawrence Tychsen, MD.

“My father was modest and humble,” Ms. Poole says. “He wanted to be a doctor simply to help people. On top of his great ability, he gave freely of his time and resources. He stands as a shining example of what every doctor should be.”

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton says, “We are pleased to play a role in preserving the memory of a man who had such a great impact on the St. Louis community and the field of ophthalmology. Jane Hardesty Poole’s gift ensures that her father’s influence will continue through the contributions of the ophthalmologists who work and train at Washington University.


Wartime Heroics

Prior to becoming one of the St. Louis area’s most respected physicians, John Hardesty, MD, achieved renown as a medical officer during World War I.
After entering the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1917, Dr. Hardesty was among the earliest group of Army surgeons to volunteer to serve with the British army as a member of the Seaforth Highlanders, an infantry regiment associated with the northern Highlands of Scotland. Members of the regiment who wore traditional kilts earned the nickname “Ladies From Hell,” allegedly because they struck fear into the hearts of German soldiers.

Hardesty POW photo_Resized.jpg

Dr. Hardesty, second from left, during World War I (Photo courtesy of Missouri History Museum, St. Louis)
During a fierce battle in northwest France, Dr. Hardesty was captured by the German army while manning an aid post in the front-line trenches. He was held for eight months, serving most of that time at prisoner-of-war camps in Rastatt and Villingen, Germany.
Dr. Hardesty played a key role in a daring escape from the Villingen camp in October 1918. He devised a successful plan to short-circuit lighting along a barbed-wire fence and distract guards so three fellow prisoners could make their way through the fencing. His part in the plot, a secret at the time, was widely reported in newspapers after he was formally discharged from the Army.
In 1922, Dr. Hardesty was awarded a Victory Medal for his heroism during the Cambrai and Somme defensives in France.