September 11, 2012

O’Day left legacy of passion, humility, kindness

Vanderbilt University Medical Center is mourning the loss of longtime faculty member Denis O’Day, M.D., director of the School of Medicine’s Emphasis Program and professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center is mourning the loss of longtime faculty member Denis O’Day, M.D., director of the School of Medicine’s Emphasis Program and professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

Denis O'Day (Vanderbilt University)
Denis O'Day (Vanderbilt University)

Well known for his generosity, humility and devotion to his family and vocation, Dr. O’Day will be remembered for his lifelong passions for medicine, social justice, sailing and mentoring.

Dr. O’Day died Sunday, Sept. 9, at his home. He was 76.

“Dr. O’Day’s passing is a tremendous loss for the Vanderbilt community. His contributions have been numerous and foundational. Denis possessed tremendous capabilities as an accomplished clinician, department leader and educator, while always expressing humility and kindness toward others,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “His contributions as a teacher and mentor are legendary. There is no greater example than the School of Medicine’s Emphasis Program. Thanks to Denis’ leadership, more than 700 of our students learned fundamental research skills while in medical school and are now making important contributions to medicine and science.”

A native of Melbourne, Australia, Dr. O’Day was educated at Xavier College in Melbourne and received his medical degree from the University of Melbourne Medical School. A fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, he completed his residency in internal medicine in Melbourne, his ophthalmology residency at the University of California, San Francisco and a fellowship in corneal and external disease at Moorefield’s Eye Hospital in London.

He joined the faculty of Vanderbilt in 1972. During his tenure, he served as chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences from 1992-2002 and was responsible for developing the Tennessee Lions Eye Center at Vanderbilt in 1997.

“During Dr. O’Day’s tenure as chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, the department grew exponentially to become one of our busiest and most successful clinical programs. His leadership helped established a rock-solid foundation for our continued success in this area,” said C. Wright Pinson, MBA, M.D., deputy vice chancellor for Health Affairs and CEO of the Vanderbilt Health System. “Denis will long be remembered for his numerous and varied contributions toward Vanderbilt’s success and the field of ophthalmology, and for his skills as a compassionate yet highly effective physician administrator.”

As director of the Emphasis Program, Dr. O’Day provided first- and second-year medical students an opportunity to work with a faculty member on a project of their choosing in one of eight areas related to medicine.

“He was a committed educator, who was beloved by the residents for his superlative lectures and expert instruction in clinical examination skills,” said Paul Sternberg Jr., M.D., G.W. Hale Professor and Chair of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and director of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute. “He has always stood for doing what is best for the patient, with the highest ethical standards and unquestionable integrity.”

During his life and throughout his career, Dr. O’Day’s faith and strong convictions about social justice remained steadfast. He served on the Social Justice Committee at the Cathedral of the Incarnation and participated in the Room in the Inn.

“In his own field of medicine, he has been extremely effective in teaching his students what it means to be not just good practitioners of medicine, but a good human being,” said Charles Strobel, founding director of Room In The Inn.

“He was a gentle, kind and compassionate human being,” said Strobel. “I have learned so much from him. He was a champion for the poor and underserved and he led by example.”

The longtime ophthalmologist’s commitment to providing vision services was far reaching. He helped build the Visitation Clinic and Hospital in Haiti and most recently served as vice chair of the Board of Directors for the Visitation Hospital Foundation.

In 2009, he received the most prestigious award in his field – the Lucien Howe Medal, which denotes distinguished service to ophthalmology. There have been only 74 recipients.

In 2010, the Denis M. O’Day, M.B.B.S. Chair in Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences was established at Vanderbilt to honor the considerable contributions he made at Vanderbilt and worldwide.

Denis O’Day, M.B.B.S., shares a moment with his wife, Ann, at a 2010 reception celebrating the establishment of the Denis M. O'Day, M.B.B.S., Chair in Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

“I have come to know him as a man with tremendous courage and grace,” said Reid Thompson, M.D., William F. Meacham Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery at Vanderbilt. “In addition to becoming his doctor and neurosurgeon, we became friends.

“He is a remarkable person with such inner peace that has allowed him to move through the final stage of his life. There is something really special about him.”

He was a leader in the field of education. In 1996 he was appointed executive director of the American Board of Ophthalmology (ABO). During his 10-year post, he led the profession through a very challenging and controversial process of establishing recertification procedures for ophthalmologists. He served on the boards of several national organizations and published more than 150 articles and several books.

Charles Wilkinson, M.D., chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, worked alongside O’Day in the ABO.

“His passion for excellence, in particular his interest in education and the validation of education is what I remember best about Denis,” said Wilkinson. “He moved the board a long, long way. He brought it into a modern era of testing and validation in the areas of competence. He was a real leader throughout that entire process.”

In an interview in 2011 O’Day said that one of the most important roles in his life, aside from husband and father, was that of a teacher.

“I think it’s the opportunity to teach and form future physicians and scholars,” he said. “That’s what I enjoyed the most. One of the joys of teaching is when you actually see the light bulb go on or when you see somebody do something that you taught them and they do it better than you,” he smiled. “That’s the goal.”

He will be remembered for his infectious but dry sense of humor, his passion for teaching and his love for sailing, cricket and woodworking.

Dr. O’Day was the son of the late Kevin and Bernadette (Toppie) O’Day. He is survived by his wife of 45 years, Ann; his sons, Luke of Milwaukee, Simon (Claudia) of Melbourne, Australia, and Edward (DeAnn) of Nashville; grandchildren Ethan, Gwendolyn, Nicole and Jaden; sisters Justine Hooson of Cambridge, England, Deidre O’Day of London and Prudence Anderson of London.

A funeral mass will be held Thursday, Sept. 13, at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, 2015 West End Ave., followed by a private burial. A wake will be held at the O’Day home from noon to 5 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Visitation Hospital in Haiti and Gilda’s Club Nashville (1707 Division St., Nashville, 37203 or