A Passion for Education

Four decades of teaching high-caliber students

Morton E. Smith, MD, began teaching students at Washington University School of Medicine in 1967, when he became course master in ophthalmology. Smith, now professor emeritus of ophthalmology and visual sciences and associate dean emeritus, notes some important changes that have occurred over the years. “Diversity in the student body has increased,” Smith says, “and the quality of teaching has improved as senior faculty members coach younger faculty in their instructional skills.” Also helpful, he adds, are leaders in the administration — true role models for the students: Larry J. Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean, Alison J. Whelan, MD, senior associate dean for education, Leslie Kahl, MD, associate dean for student affairs, and David W. Windus, MD, associate dean for medical education, among others.

In some ways, however, educating Washington University medical students hasn’t changed, says Smith. “Our students are still high achievers with outstanding credentials who bring enthusiasm to their studies,” he says. “It’s very easy to be a good teacher when you have good students.”

“I think teaching ophthalmology to medical students has improved at every academic institution around the country,” says Smith. “But some, including Washington University, have excelled because they have one or more faculty members dedicated to teaching medical students. Teaching is not just a sideline, or peripheral to their major goal.”

During his career, Smith contributed to the improvement of ophthalmology education nationwide. In the 1970s, he was on the first Committee on Medical Student Education of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The committee published guidelines that continue to be used in several forms.

An internationally recognized clinician and gifted educator, Smith’s students and residents have honored him with 16 Teacher of the Year awards. The university has awarded him the Founders Day Distinguished Faculty Award for excellence in teaching and the Distinguished Service Award, which honors high quality of instruction, strong relationships with students inside and outside the classroom, reputation for scholarship and distinguished service. In 2009 he was a recipient of the School of Medicine’s Samuel R. Goldstein Leadership Award in Medical Student Education. Smith also received two Distinguished Service Teaching Awards and a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Washington University Eye Alumni, the association of former ophthalmology house staff.

Smith has served as a faculty adviser to the Student Arts Commission, councilor of the School’s Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) Honor Medical Society chapter and director of the Scholars Program in Medicine, which recruited high school seniors to the university and guaranteed them a spot in the School of Medicine if they maintained a B-plus grade-point average. Today the University Scholars Program in Medicine carries on the spirit of the earlier program, providing select candidates with admission to both undergraduate study and the School of Medicine.

In 1978, Smith was named assistant dean of the School of Medicine. He was promoted to associate dean in 1990 and received emeritus status in 1996.
In his role as associate dean, Smith was responsible for writing a final letter of evaluation for all senior students, termed “the dean’s letter.” The letter is sent to residency program directors as part of a student’s application. “I would interview every senior student and put together the narratives from all the courses they took,” says Smith. “It was a lot of work, but I found it a tremendous amount of fun.”

A native of Baltimore, Smith earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Maryland. He completed his ophthalmology residency and his surgical pathology fellowship at Barnes Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. He also was an NIH special fellow in ophthalmic pathology at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C.

"Diversity in the student body has increased, and the quality of teaching has improved as senior faculty members coach younger faculty in their instructional skills."
—Morton E. Smith, MD

Smith’s academic subspecialty interest throughout his career has been eye pathology. Trained in both ophthalmology and pathology and with joint appointments in those departments at the school, he was responsible for preparing pathology reports on all ocular tissue samples gathered at the Washington University Medical Center. Four years ago, George J. Harocopos, MD, a former resident and trainee under Smith, replaced Smith as director of ophthalmic pathology, with Smith serving as consultant.

When not teaching medical students or residents, Smith’s clinical practice focuses on ophthalmic oncology. He still sees patients in consultation with the ophthalmology residents.

Although Smith doesn’t keep a record of how many students he has taught, 43 academic years likely translates to more than 5,000 former students, and they pop up everywhere he travels. He recounts a vacation in Florida when he was visiting an animal preserve. A young man who was there with his family turned to Smith and, upon recognizing him, said, “You wrote my dean’s letter!”

“I get the biggest kick out of that,” says Smith. “It’s such a thrill to be able to go into the twilight years of my career and have those kinds of experiences, knowing that I’ve had an impact.”

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Morton E. Smith, MD, poses with fourth-year medical students on the first day of the ophthalmology selective.