Remembering Benefactor T. Boone Pickens

Published in Wilmer - Annual Report 2019

Growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, T. Boone Pickens, who died on Sept. 11, 2019, at the age of 91, learned his work ethic and generosity from his parents and grandparents. “It was a family where you helped people. My grandmother — she always gave. Didn’t have a lot, but she always gave,” Pickens said in an interview at the Wilmer Eye Institute several years ago.

Starting with a paper route as a child, Pickens showed a penchant for entrepreneurship. He would eventually make a billion-dollar fortune after founding the oil and gas company Mesa Petroleum and later starting the hedge fund BP Capital Management. His business successes led to wealth, fame and philanthropy.

The Wilmer Eye Institute was one recipient of his philanthropy. Pickens’ generosity funded the Boone Pickens Professorship, the T. Boone Pickens Atrium in the heart of Wilmer’s Robert H. and Clarice Smith Building, and the T. Boone Pickens Scholars Fund. The latter enables Dr. Peter J. McDonnell, Wilmer’s director, to recruit the best and brightest young faculty members from around the world and also illustrates how Pickens always had his eye to the future.

Pickens first came to Wilmer to get treatment for his father, who was legally blind by 85. Pickens himself was treated for cataracts and then macular degeneration. “When I got the macular diagnosis, I thought, well, I’m going to go the same track as my father, probably,” he said. This didn’t happen, though, because the game-changing anti-vascular endothelial growth factor injections became available just prior to Pickens’ diagnosis — and allowed Dr. Neil Bressler the privilege of getting to know Pickens when he became Bressler’s patient.

“Boone not only was a great businessman and philanthropist, he also was a great storyteller,” says Dr. Bressler. “I had to see him monthly initially to treat his macular degeneration, and he always had a new story. It might relate to something going on in politics or in business. But it always had humor and a lesson in life and human nature to be considered. He learned a lot about retinal disease from me, but I learned a lot more about the oil business and life from him.”

Dr. McDonnell also came to know Pickens during the philanthropist’s long relationship with the institute. “Boone Pickens was remarkably intelligent, thoughtful, well-read and a gifted raconteur, and these qualities made so many of us look forward to the opportunity to spend time with him,” says Dr. McDonnell. “One thing that impressed me greatly about Boone — but may not be widely known — was how he learned and remembered the names of Wilmer staff members who assisted our doctors in his care or performed some small service for him. Many is the time I observed him thanking by name these individuals, and it was not uncommon for him to send personal notes of thanks to members of our Wilmer family. He never took for granted the caring attitude he observed in Wilmer doctors, nurses and staff,” says Dr. McDonnell. “Mr. Pickens could have chosen to receive his care anywhere. That he selected Wilmer and became an extremely generous supporter of our work is something that was very meaningful to all of us in Baltimore. He left a major mark on our institute.”