Remembering Rick Forsythe

Published in Wilmer - Summer 2023

Dear Friends,

In its 98 years of existence, the Wilmer Eye Institute has benefited from the extraordinary support of many extraordinary people, beginning with Aida Breckinridge, who led the charge to raise the funds required to establish the institute that is today known throughout the world.

During the tenure of A. Edward Maumenee, Wilmer’s third director, the Wilmer Advisory Council (today known as the Wilmer Board of Governors) was established. Populated by leaders from the worlds of business, law, finance, the arts, academia, public service and the health sciences, this board has provided those in the position I currently occupy with generous amounts of wisdom, experience, valuable advice, technical know-how and philanthropic support.

Over generations, the board has had a succession of chairs who are leaders among leaders. This year, I am sad to say, we lost one of those leaders with the death of Rick Forsythe in December 2022.

Rick, along with his wife, Sandy, agreed to serve as the first chairs of the Wilmer board during my time as director. It is hard for me to detail the impact of Rick’s time in this role. A self-made man with an outsized personality, Rick left his position at IBM to start his own technology firm in Chicago. As his firm grew, Rick became a pillar of the Chicago business community. To dine with Rick and Sandy at their favorite eatery was to attend a master class in networking, as he bantered with and charmed the staff, all of whom he acknowledged by name. He struck me as having the gift of being able to make everyone he interacted with feel like a friend.

Later in life, Rick suffered from macular degeneration and sought care at Wilmer. Impressed by the doctors he met here, Rick and Sandy supported a number of young faculty members who were conducting research into his disease and who are today recognized as leaders in the field. Although his background was not in the life sciences, it was remarkable to watch Rick question these physician-scientists about their work. He came to know the doctors, technicians and nurses at Wilmer well and never failed to express his appreciation to everyone who participated in his care.

During Rick and Sandy’s tenure as board chairs, spanning from 2003–2010, Wilmer — which was spending more on research than any other department of ophthalmology — ran out of space to conduct research. Rick and Sandy made the first major gift that started the ball rolling to make the 207,000-square-foot Robert H. and Clarice Smith Building a reality. Rick told me that having a building with open architecture to facilitate interactions and collaborations would, based upon his experience with his own company, increase Wilmer’s research productivity by 15%. Within a year or two of the building opening, we had increased research productivity by over 30% — more than double Rick’s prediction. Today, a decade after the building opened, our research productivity has tripled compared to before we had this state-of-the-art facility we built during Rick and Sandy’s leadership.

Rick and Sandy were not done. Impressed by the fact that many young trainees were burdened by large loans for their educations and were of necessity passing up lower-paying careers in academic medicine, they endowed a new fund, the Forsythe Next Generation Fund, to help pay the student loans of individuals who joined the Wilmer faculty and received outstanding annual performance reviews. Today, that fund exceeds $1 million.

We continue to hold Rick and his family, including Sandy and their daughter Mary, close. Sandy, who received our prestigious Aida de Acosta Root Breckinridge Award in 2014, remains on our board today.

My Wilmer colleagues and I will always be grateful to Rick and Sandy Forsythe for all they did during my time as Wilmer’s director to strengthen our institute. It is my fervent hope and belief that, toward the end of his life, Rick knew how much impact he had on this institution. Their names appear throughout the institute, acknowledging support for the “Sandy & Rick Forsythe Pavilion for Macular Research” and other initiatives. For generations to come, Wilmer will honor his name and benefit from what he did for us.

–Peter J. McDonnell, Director