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On a typical day at work, Vincent Przybyla Jr. might have unscrewed the cap on a tube of oil paint and reached for a paintbrush with just two horsehair bristles. Wearing powerful magnifying goggles and a lab coat smeared with plaster and wax, Przybyla would have begun work on a masterpiece in miniature, painting first irises, then pupils that reflected American flags waving in the distance, perfect for a distinguished veteran.
As an ocularist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for 38 years, Przybyla made prosthetic eyes that looked impressively real. That is, unless a patient requested something unusual, such as the patriotic peepers he crafted for a colonel who served in the Vietnam War.
“That work was amazing. He painted all 50 stars in each flag,” says the ocularist’s oldest son, Vincent Przybyla III, who is 33 and lives in Annapolis. “There was a picture of it hanging in his office for years.”
Most of the photos, fake eyeballs, tools, materials, and books that once cluttered the ocularist’s chaotic-looking office were put in storage after Przybyla’s death last year at 61. Curiously, “Walter Reed’s Last Ocularist,” a new permanent exhibit dedicated to Przybyla’s work at the National Museum of Health & Medicine on the Walter Reed campus in Shepherd Park, soldiers on without them.
The museum does host a fascinating collection of macabre and slightly gross artifacts: fragments of President Lincoln’s skull, a large hairball in the shape of the young girl’s stomach from which it was removed, and conjoined twins preserved in a jar. So it would be reasonable to expect an eye-popping display of items from the man patients called “Dr. Vince”—perhaps something reminiscent of Hannibal Chew’s eyeball shop in Blade Runner. Or botched projects from the ocularist’s worktable. Or gruesome before-and-after photos.
Instead, “Last Ocularist” consists of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clear box enclosing paintbrushes, paints, a few tools, one fake eye, and some fairly recent photos, neither framed nor mounted to keep them from curling.
“I was surprised and a little disappointed,” says Vincent III. “I told [the museum] that I would give them anything of my dad’s from storage for the exhibit, but they never called back.”
At the office, Przybyla worked in medical seriousness, but once at home, he’d turn his gift for the meticulous toward more antic projects. One Halloween, he built a wooden Viking ship around young Vince’s Leif Ericson costume. Another year, he built a wooden airplane for the boy, who dressed as a Wright brother. Przybyla was the kind of guy who’d tie a rubber chicken to the front of his car to embarrass his kids, and he frequently turned down job offers promising salaries several times his GS-11 paycheck. The Walter Reed exhibit seems unconscionably one-dimensional.
“It’s small, and it’s a manipulative exhibit,” says museum director Adrianne Noe. “It forces you to look closely at the objects that represent Vince’s work, just as he had to look closely at everything that he did.”
The eye man’s son says that’s not what’s being reflected in his own pupils. “In my mind, it should make an honest attempt to summarize an entire career,” he says. “You should not have to lean in closer. Rather, you should be able to take a step back and…gaze upon a lifetime of work.” —Hope Cristol