A Local Life: Marshall Parks
D.C. Physician Illuminated The Ailments of Young Eyes
Sunday, August 21, 2005
For years and years, Washington area parents of children with eye problems made their way to a spacious 1920s-era white-stucco house on Massachusetts Avenue NW, the home and office of physician Marshall Parks. Invariably, it was a visit invested with hope that the pioneering pediatric ophthalmologist would be able to bring light to their child, as he had done with youngsters around the world.
Parks, a Michigan native who practiced medicine in the District for more than a half-century, died July 27 of cancer at Washington Hospital Center. He was 87.
He retired three years ago, although his in-home office, a block from the Naval Observatory, is intact. To step into that office is to step into a Norman Rockwell illustration, into a time when the kindly family doctor was almost a family member himself.
On the wall behind his desk are mirrored shelves of Hummel figurines -- more than 100 cute children, angels, doctors and other miniature porcelain objects that patients, friends and relatives collected for him. Near the desk is the familiar eye examination chair with its chin rest and slit-lamp biomicroscope -- a sturdy antique, in this case -- and a beautiful cherry cabinet containing his carefully arranged collection of lenses.
Underneath the leather-topped pad of Parks's examination table is a light table he rigged up for the thousands of photographic slides of eyeballs and surgical procedures he took during the course of his research.
On the opposite wall is a wooden cabinet with three glass-fronted shelves. Examining a child, Parks could press a button, one of the shelves would light up and a toy dog inside would bark and rear up on its hind legs, capturing the child's attention and allowing the doctor to examine young eyes opened wide in surprise and delight.
He had a way with children, not surprising, perhaps, for a man who had 11 of his own. Daughter-in-law Mimi Parks was assisting him one morning when he had to tell the parents of a 6-year-old that their daughter's infected eye would have to be removed. Parks not only talked to the distraught parents; he sat down with the youngster and explained slowly and carefully what he had to do and why he had to do it. When he finished, the little girl gave the tall, fatherly doctor a hug.
"He treated the child as a human being," said Mohamad S. Jaafar, director of ophthalmology at Children's National Medical Center and a former colleague of Parks's. "He treated the child first before he treated the eye."
When Parks finished medical school in 1943, parents whose children had eye problems might have taken them to a pediatrician or perhaps to an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist, but not to a children's eye doctor. The subspecialty now known as pediatric ophthalmology simply didn't exist.
"For all intents and purposes, he was the father of pediatric ophthalmology," said George Beauchamp, a Dallas area pediatric ophthalmologist and a former student of Parks's.
Parks not only treated thousands of youngsters, but he also devised new diagnosis and treatment procedures for strabismus (misalignment of the eyes) and other eye maladies afflicting children. He also trained many of the world's leading pediatric ophthalmologists.
In collaboration with physician Frank D. Costenbader, his mentor at what is now Children's National Medical Center, Parks recognized in the 1940s that children's visual systems developed very early in life and that vision problems had to be addressed immediately. In opposition to standard practice at the time, he maintained that crossed eyes and other childhood visual maladies did not correct themselves; untreated, they worsened.
Parks and his wife, Angeline Miller Parks (who died in 1987), ran their large household -- and Parks's practice -- with a precision rivaling that of Frank B. Gilbreth of "Cheaper by the Dozen" fame.
"There was a time and a place for everything," son Mark Parks recalled. His father would go to bed about 11 and would be seeing patients the next morning by 6:30 or 7, to accommodate working mothers. He was often in his comfortable, book-lined study late into the night, working on one of his numerous books.
He traveled frequently, to train new generations of pediatric ophthalmologists and to see young patients. "He never turned away anyone," Mark Parks said. "If parents couldn't pay for surgery, he'd fly them up here, put them up in the apartment over the garage and do the surgery pro bono."
Said Beauchamp: "He was a marvelous surgeon and a marvelous teacher of surgery."
This man who devoted his life to others -- "bringing light to thousands," as his second wife, Martha McSteen Parks, remarked -- continued doing surgery until age 80. Still clear-minded and steady of hand, he retired simply to ease parents' apprehensions about an elderly, white-haired man performing delicate surgery on their child's eyes.
As Beauchamp noted, they need not have worried.