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Dr. Robert B. Welch, ophthalmologist who co-directed Wilmer Retina Service at Johns Hopkins Hospital, dies

Dr. Robert B. Welch was elected president of the American Ophthalmological Society in 1994.
Dr. Robert B. Welch was elected president of the American Ophthalmological Society in 1994.

Dr. Robert B. Welch, an internationally renowned ophthalmologist who had been co-director of the Wilmer Retina Service at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and had been chairman of ophthalmology at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, died of pneumonia Jan. 5 at the Blakehurst Retirement Community in Towson. The former longtime Roland Park resident was 93.

“Bob was a unique character and very humble. While he was a world-renowned ophthalmologist and a prominent figure at Hopkins, he remained very humble,” said Dr. Allan D. Jensen, a noted Baltimore ophthalmologist, who got to know Dr. Welch when he was a resident at Hopkins, and then joined his practice and worked with him for 40 years.

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“He was great with patients, a great teacher, did research, and kept wonderful records. He was the complete physician,” he said. “He was very kind and gentle, and he had been my teacher.”

Robert Bond Welch, the son of Dr. Robert Sellman Gray Welch, the first eye, ear, nose and throat specialist in Annapolis, and his wife, Sarah Bond Welch, a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised at 86 State Circle in Annapolis, across from the State House, where his father also maintained his medical office in the front parlor of the family residence.

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Dr. Welch was born into a medical family, and in addition to his father, his grandfather had been a physician — “a horse and buggy doctor” — Dr. Welch told Dr. Jensen in a 2008 interview for the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology Museum of Vision & Ophthalmic Heritage. “On my mother’s side, my great-great-uncle was Thomas Bond, who went to Philadelphia and started the first hospital with Ben Franklin — the Pennsylvania Hospital. So I had a lot of background of physicians. But nothing was ever said about my going into medicine.”

Dr. Robert B. Welch, left, and Dr. Paul Michelson perform eye surgery Dec. 7, 1969, at the Wilmer Eye Institute at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. ELLIS J. MALASHUK/THE SUN
Dr. Robert B. Welch, left, and Dr. Paul Michelson perform eye surgery Dec. 7, 1969, at the Wilmer Eye Institute at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. ELLIS J. MALASHUK/THE SUN (Malashuk / Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

As a young boy, he enjoyed looking at medical diagrams in his father’s books and reading Gray’s Anatomy. “I used to get a big kick out of that. I probably didn’t know what I was looking at, but I was pretty interested in medicine,” he said in the interview.

At the age of 14, Dr. Welch announced to his family that he was going into medicine.

After graduating from Annapolis High School, he began his college studies at Princeton, which were interrupted when he joined the Navy and served as a hospital corpsman. After being discharged from the Navy, he returned to Princeton where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949.

He earned his medical degree in 1953 from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, which he followed with an internship in internal medicine at Duke University Hospital.

“Interestingly enough, I was really interested in medical in going into internal medicine. But I liked ophthalmology, and of course, with the background of my dad being an ophthalmologist, I had been exposed to it all my life,” Dr. Welch explained in the interview.

“During this internship year at Duke, I had a lot of patients die, and I decided that it might be worth trying a specialty where you didn’t have such an outcome so often, and since I liked ophthalmology, I said to my wife, Betty, ‘I think I’m going to write Dr. [Alan C.] Woods back at Wilmer and see if he’ll take me as an intern.’”

Dr. Woods had been chairman of the medical board at Hopkins Hospital and director of the Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute, now the Wilmer Eye Institute, at Hopkins.

After telling Dr. Eugene Stead at Duke, “who was always bringing ophthalmology into internal medicine,” that he wished to pursue a career in ophthalmology, Dr. Welch said in the interview, Dr. Stead urged him to write to Dr. Woods at Hopkins.

“So I wrote Dr. Woods, and he accepted me. And so that’s the way I happened to get into ophthalmology,” Dr. Welch said in the interview.

In 1954, he returned to Hopkins and began an ophthalmology internship under Dr. Woods, and after his third year of residency, he was selected to become chief resident by Dr. A. Edward Maumenee, who had succeeded Dr. Woods.

It was during this time that Dr. Welch decided to make the study of the retina the cornerstone of his career, and established himself as a leading figure in retinal care, surgery, clinical research and training. At the Wilmer Eye Institute, he co-directed the Wilmer Retina Service from 1959 to 1985, served as chairman of Ophthalmology at Greater Baltimore Medical Center from 1985 to 1991, and was elected president of the American Ophthalmological Society in 1994.

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“This was the era before retina photography and then you looked at Bob’s charts, his retina drawings were very artistic and he was able to use them to teach residents,” Dr. Jensen said.

Dr. Welch also maintained a private practice with offices in Mount Vernon Place and in his boyhood home in Annapolis.

Dr. Jensen was concluding his Air Force service in San Antonio in 1976 when the phone rang one day. It was Dr. Welch calling from Baltimore.

“Bob called me and asked if I wanted to join his practice and it took me all of one minute to say, ‘Yes,’” Dr. Jensen recalled. “We rotated between the West Mount Vernon Place and the Annapolis office, which was like a museum.”

Dr. Welch had built such a reputation and following that, patients often told Dr. Jensen, “I’ve come to see Dr. Welch, but I guess I have to see you,” he said with a laugh.

He was also a retinal consultant to the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital, Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

In recognition of his years of service, the Army Department presented him with the Superior Civilian Service Award in 2004, and in 2006, the Robert Bond Welch M.D. Professorship for Medical and Surgical Diseases of the Retina was established at Wilmer. GBMC endowed a chair in ophthalmology in his name in 2015.

He retired in 2015, said a cousin, Anne-Steuart Palmer of Roland Park.

Dr. Welch exuded a commanding presence, standing at 6 feet 8, and spoke with a very high-pitched voice. He was also lighthearted and gifted with a great sense of humor, family and friends said.

“He had a sense of fun and was full of fun. He had a great sense of humor and an enormous memory,” his cousin said.

He wrote poems to celebrate family milestones, and his keen interest in history resulted in his writing two histories of the Wilmer Eye Institute, the second being “The Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute 1925-1975,” which celebrated the institute’s 75th anniversary of its founding in 1900.

One day while sailing to the Eastern Shore, Dr. Welch caught a glimpse of the former Betty Truslow aboard an adjacent skiff and was determined to meet the attractive young woman who had caught his eye. He eventually got to know her, they fell in love, and they married in 1953. She died in 2016.

In addition to their home on Atwick Road in Roland Park, the couple maintained a second home overlooking the Severn River near Annapolis, where Dr. Welch indulged his passion for growing various species of holly. He was also a longtime active member of the Holly Society of America.

The couple, who were world travelers, also drove cross-country seven times by car, Ms. Palmer said. He also enjoyed playing tennis and was a member of the Maryland Club and South River Club.

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In 2016, they moved to the Blakehurst Retirement Community in Towson.

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Dr. Welch was a longtime communicant of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Roland Park, where he was a longtime usher and a fixture at the 8 a.m. service.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a memorial service to be held at a later date are incomplete.

In addition to his cousin, Dr. Welch is survived by his sister, Sarah Bond Welch Geary of Alexandria, Virginia; a nephew, John Welch Geary of Annapolis; and another cousin, Hal Vaughan of Prince Frederick.

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