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June 14, 2016

School of Medicine’s oldest known alumnus, James Spencer Dryden, dies at 106

Born in January 1910 in Poquoson, Virginia, to Alice Lee Hunt and James Oscar Dryden, James Spencer Dryden, M’33, H’40, died at age 106 on June 14, 2016, at his home in Punta Gorda, Florida. He is believed to have been the School of Medicine’s oldest graduate at the time of his death.

In a 50-year career in ophthalmology in Washington, D.C., Dryden was physician and friend to some of the nation’s most prominent politicians. He served as president of the American Association of Ophthalmology in 1970 and also of the MCV Alumni Association in 1958.

James Spencer Dryden, M'33, H’40James Spencer Dryden, M’33, H’40, at his 103rd birthday party

Following an expedited honors pre-med program at William and Mary College, Dryden entered the Medical College of Virginia in 1929, the onset of the Great Depression. Four years later, at age 23, he graduated and began an internship at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Norfolk, later serving as a medical officer in the Civilian Conservation Corps, stationed in Baltimore, Maryland. He returned to MCV and completed an ophthalmology residency in 1940, becoming a diplomate of the American Board of Ophthalmology in 1942.

With the advent of World War II, Dryden served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, stationed at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. Gen. Marietta foresaw that Walter Reed would see many casualties from the western theatre of the war and ordered Dryden to set up a surgery at Soldier’s Home (now the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home) to handle the surgeries of retired military officers who would otherwise be treated at Walter Reed. Designated acting commander and then chief medical officer of Soldiers’ Home, Dryden would go on to be awarded the American Theater Service Medal, American Defense Service Medal and World War II Victory Medal.

At the end of the war he was honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and opened an ophthalmology practice in Washington, D.C. In 1945 he purchased the ophthalmology practice of Edward L. Morrison, who had been in private practice with William H. Wilmer, founder of Johns Hopkins’ Wilmer Institute of Ophthalmology. Among the artifacts of the Morrison practice were Wilmer’s in-office surgery chair and Wilmer’s ophthalmological “trial case,” which Dryden later donated to the Wilmer Institute’ museum. Dryden estimated that by the time of his own 1991 retirement Wilmer’s surgery chair had been in continuous use for over 100 years.

In Washington, D.C. he served as chief of the Department of Ophthalmology at both Doctors Hospital and Washington Hospital Center. He developed an advanced method of reattaching a dislocated lens and published it in the American Journal of Ophthalmology, “Sclerocorneal Transfixation Method: For the Removal of Posteriorly Dislocated Lenses” in October 1961.

With his proximity to the nation’s capital, many prominent politicians and other dignitaries became his patients and friends. His daughter, Kay Dryden, recalls that J. Edgar Hoover “sent dad a case of whisky every Christmas, and dad and mom always watched the presidential inauguration parades from Hoover’s Pennsylvania Avenue office.”

As president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia, Dryden appeared on numerous occasions before the U.S. Congressional District of Columbia Oversight Committee. He also served as president of the Washington Ophthalmological Society, in addition to his service to the American Association of Ophthalmology and the MCV Alumni Association.

J. Spencer Dryden M'33
J. Spencer Dryden M’33 (right) with his son-in-law and two youngest grandchildren. This photo was taken in 2002 on St. Andrews South Golf Course, in Punta Gorda, Fla., where Dryden had shot a 77 — 13 strokes under his age two years earlier.

His interests outside of medicine included developing and managing Colonial Simmental Farms in Westmoreland County, Virginia. For 30 years, Dryden and his wife raised Swiss Simmental cattle on land originally owned by George Washington’s great-grandfather. His daughter Kay told the Newport News, Virginia’s Daily Press newspaper, “These very large cattle would follow him around like puppies because he always kept apples in his pockets.”

Dryden was an accomplished self-taught golfer. At age 79 he broke his age by one stroke at the Bethesda Country Club and was written up in Golf Digest. At age 88 he shot an 85 at the San Francisco Olympic Club, and at age 90 he shot thirteen strokes under his age at St. Andrews South Golf Club in Florida for a score of 77, a feat noted in the local newspapers.

In retirement he enjoyed writing articles, letters to the editor, poems, songs and political satire, which have been variously published, recorded and performed publicly. Dryden was intellectually sharp and physically fit throughout his life. At his 106th birthday he entertained guests by reciting a favorite childhood poem from memory, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.”

Dryden and his wife, Tricola Inez Mitchell, were married 66 years until her death in 2000. He is survived by three children, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He will be greatly missed by family and friends who cherished his towering intellect, wisdom, humor, kindness and love. He was a fine gentleman and his generosity of spirit touched all who knew him.

Dryden’s cremated remains will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

For more information on Dr. Dryden’s life:
James Spencer Dryden, ophthalmologist, Washington Post
Noted eye doctor from Poquoson dies, Daily Press
Ophthalmologist, ex-Westmoreland farm owner dies at 106, Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star

Our thanks to Kay Dryden for contributing to this report.

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Updated: 04/29/2016