As one who still struggles with the English language, I’m pretty impressed with anyone who has mastered a second or third language — and I stand in amazement at people who master ancient Greek and (even worse) Sanskrit. When that person uses their linguistic knowledge to enjoy reading ancient Eastern literature, it doesn’t even seem like we’re on the same planet. Yet that’s only a portion of what our colleague, Dr. Creig S. Hoyt, is accomplishing in his remarkable life.
Dr. Hoyt was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and religion at Amherst College and a medical degree at Cornell University, where he became interested in neurology. After an internship at Stanford University and a neurology residency at the University of California, San Francisco, he served three years in the U.S. Navy as a flight surgeon. During his neurology residency, he had the good fortune to meet Dr. William F. Hoyt (no relation), which led to his interest in ophthalmology. So, he returned to UCSF for an ophthalmology residency and then went to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, for a fellowship in pediatric ophthalmology.
In 1977, Dr. Hoyt joined the faculty of the ophthalmology department at UCSF, where he remained for the next three decades, rising to world prominence in both neuro-ophthalmology and pediatric ophthalmology and eventually becoming chair of the department. He also served as editor of the British Journal of Ophthalmology and co-authored with Dr. David Taylor the Textbook of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. Throughout his tenure at UCSF, he and his wife lived on a houseboat (their “floating home”) in Sausalito, allowing Dr. Hoyt to enjoy his interest in racing surf skis (a type of kayak designed for speed). But by 2008 he was beginning to feel the need for new challenges and an expanded horizon.
St. John’s College is a private liberal arts college with dual campuses in Annapolis, MD, and Santa Fe, NM. As Dr. Hoyt describes it, the institution (one of the oldest in the country) “is intense and not for the faint of heart.” There are no sports (aside from an annual croquet match against the U.S. Naval Academy) and not much extracurricular activity. The program is based on small seminars and “stacks of reading.” He had considered attending St. John’s College as an undergraduate, but it seemed like more than he could handle at the time. However, in 2010, the Hoyts rented their houseboat and he matriculated at the Santa Fe campus to learn Sanskrit and read ancient Eastern literature, earning a master’s degree in Eastern classics.
“I simply wanted to learn something I did not know anything about,” he explained. “I wanted to be a full-time student, not just attend lectures. Reading ancient Eastern literature and learning Sanskrit sounded like a good challenge.”
A challenge it was. For two years, he struggled to learn one of the oldest languages in the world. Sanskrit dates back 5,000 years. It’s the ancient Indo-European language of India, from which northern Indian languages are derived and in which Hindu scripture and classical Indian epic poems are written. “The students at St. John’s call it ancient Greek on steroids,” Dr. Hoyt said. “Many scholars spend a lifetime learning all its nuances. Its structure is meant to convey ideas precisely, without ambiguity. The price you pay for that is infinite small variations in structure.” There are at least 10 verb tenses in Sanskrit, for example.
But Dr. Hoyt is quick to point out the pleasures afforded by an understanding of Sanskrit. Since it is the language in which many Eastern classics were written, it allows the reader to discover the original forms of ancient literature. One example is the great epic, “Mahabharata,” which was written around the third century BCE. It is said to be the longest poem ever written, with over 200,000 verses and 1.8 million words, making it roughly 10 times the length of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” combined. While it narrates the struggle between two groups of cousins, it also contains philosophical and devotional material, providing a window into the thoughts and beliefs that evolved from that time.
Yet his inner physician was never far away: He found interesting concepts of illness and death in the ancient literature. For example, the “Tale of Genji” — a classic work of Japanese literature that was written in the 11th century by a woman and is considered by many to be the first novel — often dismisses illness and death as a blissful and nonpainful process. Dr. Hoyt notes that this is consistent with teachings of Buddhism, introduced to Japan in the sixth century, that regard death as a release from the suffering of life.
After two years at St John’s, the Hoyts returned to their houseboat in Sausalito. Dr. Hoyt resumed his position on the UCSF faculty on a part-time basis and also became active in a charitable program in China called Lifeline Express. The program, which began in India and was replicated in China in 1997, provides rainbow-colored “eye trains” that offer free cataract surgery. It also promotes ophthalmic training for Chinese doctors, and it is in this area that Dr. Hoyt has been involved.
What does one do for leisure when not working at a major university or teaching ophthalmology to doctors in China? It may come as no surprise that Dr. Hoyt enjoys reading the classics of Eastern thought. But he doesn’t just read — he translates them from the original Sanskrit. His preferred technique is to start with Nāgarī script, in which Sanskrit is written, and transliterate it to English (i.e., swap letters from the ancient alphabet for those of the Latin alphabet, then translating that into English). When he’s not doing that, he’s on the water enjoying standup paddle board racing.
Such is the life of Dr. Creig Hoyt, a true Renaissance man. He may not be your typical ophthalmologist, or typical of any profession, but his diverse interests and talents add further stature to the distinguished profession to which we are so privileged to belong.