The Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences is saddened by the loss of longtime faculty member, colleague and beloved friend Guillermo de Venecia, MD. De Venecia died May 11, 2023, at the age of 91. His career with the department spanned more than four decades, and his influence is felt by our learners and the field of ophthalmology locally, nationally, and globally.
“Dr. de Venecia was a pioneer, and a generous, loving spirit,” said Department Chair Terri Young, MD, MBA. “His legacy lives on in the many patients he touched both in Madison and in the Philippines.”
De Venecia was born in Lingayen, Pangasinan Philippines. He immigrated to the United States in 1956, when he began ophthalmology residency with the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. He then completed a glaucoma fellowship at the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary, a neuro‑ophthalmology fellowship at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, and an ophthalmic pathology fellowship with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. This background and training gave him unique insights into disease physiology, which he selflessly shared with learners and colleagues.
After serving as an instructor for three years, Dr. de Venecia joined the faculty in 1962. In addition to running an active medical retinal disease clinic focused on diabetic and hypertensive retinopathies, by the time he retired as a professor in 1999, he had amassed an extensive list of accomplishments, including 6 grants, nearly 50 publications, 9 book chapters, 13 abstracts and more than 80 invited presentations, 20 of which were international. His impressive record of service to the department included serving as ophthalmic pathology director from 1966-1993.
Dr. de Venecia was known as a giving, kind, dedicated physician who always gave the best to his patients. “Guil was one of my best teachers and taught me more about compassion and how to touch people’s lives,” recalls Robert Castrovinci, MD, who completed his residency with the UW in 1977. “Thinking about him brings a smile to my face. He had an innate ability to put people at ease and find humor in so many things. Even as he taught the residents Ocular Pathology in a Socratic way, letting us find the correct diagnosis by steering us in the right direction with his questions, there was always a smile.”
Dr. de Venecia partnered with Dr. Frederick Brightbill, the Wisconsin Lions, and Milwaukee Eye Bank to establish the state’s first eye bank, the Eye Bank of Wisconsin, in 1969. In 1979, Dr. de Venecia and his beloved wife, Marta – a nurse, whom he married in 1960 – established the Free Rural Eye Clinic in the Philippines to provide free eye surgery to cataract blind individuals who could not afford it. Thanks to the de Venecias and the many volunteers and donors, the Free Rural Eye Clinic treated over 250,000 patients and performed nearly 30,000 cataract operations.
“One of the huge highlights of my residency was my time at the Free Rural Eye Clinic working with Guil and Marta in the Philippines,” said Daniel Knoch, MD, vice chair of education and faculty development. “It was very apparent from day one how truly dedicated the de Venecias were to helping their patients. The skills that I learned there performing extracapsular cataract and pterygium surgery are skills that I still use to this day and am very grateful for. Guil and Marta also taught me the human side of medicine as their warm smiles brightened up the room. Their dedication was inspiring, and I know that there are many others who feel the same.”
In 1995, Dr. de Venecia invited Castrovinci to join him in the Philippines. “I instantly said yes,” Castrovinci said. “And that trip changed my life in so many ways. The trip was an ‘intense’ experience: the sights, the sounds, and the people. The Philippines is a country of contrasts – intense beauty and crushing poverty. You couldn’t go on one of Guil and Marta de Venicia’s mission trips and not be changed. The Filipino people are no different than us; they want the same things we do for our families. But regardless of their current condition, they have a huge belief that things can get better. Guil taught me that if you can make a part of someone’s life better; you are changing the world one person at a time. A great motto for him was “Great acts are made up of small deeds.”
In 2014, the Free Rural Eye Clinic established the Guillermo and Marta de Venecia Educational Fund. The $422,000 donation is used by the department to provide free eye care and surgery to indigent patients of the Philippine Islands and to train tomorrow’s eye doctors and vision science researchers from both sides of the world. A number of the department’s ophthalmology residents have benefitted from this gift by enhancing their skills through an international rotation at the de Venecia’s eye clinic. The fund also supports an annual lecture in de Venecia’s honor.
“We will remember Guillermo de Venecia for his wisdom, dedication, generosity, and compassion,” said Young. “He was a kind and giving human being- and a true leader in the global mission to save sight. He will continue to serve as an inspiration to future generations of eye care providers for years to come.”