McPherson Eye Research Institute Honors Distinguished Alumna
"Vision - It reaches beyond the thing that is, into the conception of what can be," professes 20th century author Robert Collier.
Reaching beyond is something Alice McPherson, MD '51, has done all of her life.
In the 1960s and '70s, she pioneered xenon and laser therapy, cryotherapy and scleral buckling procedures in her quest to save the vision of patients with diseases of the retina. She also was among the first to document treatment of diabetic retinopathy with photocoagulation of the retina.
Now a professor of ophthalmology at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine, the Canada native's career has its roots at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned her undergraduate and medical degrees. She was one of four women in her 1951 School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) graduating class.
After furthering her retina specialty through residencies and fellowships in Santa Barbara, California; Chicago; Madison and Boston, McPherson returned to the School of Medicine and Public Health as an ophthalmology instructor. She credits the progressive attitude of her UW mentors - Frederick Davis, MD, and Peter Duehr, MD - with helping her forge her career.
"There were about 11 retina specialists in the U.S. In that day, one or two retina doctors were enough for a state," she says.
With retina specialist Davis in Madison, and others in Florida, New York and California, in 1960 she found her niche in Texas, among people she describes as "accustomed to women going west and proving themselves."
Prove herself she did, throughout the nation and world. Her roles in patient care, research and teaching remain active today.
Recognizing the need for basic research to eradicate blindness, she established the Retina Research Foundation (RRF) in 1969. Through donations from the private sector and investment of its endowment funds, the foundation provides research grants, fellowships and awards through many national and international vision-related organizations. The Retina Research Foundation also funds endowed, named professorships and chair positions at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and Baylor College of Medicine.
Upon learning in 1994 that her beloved Professor Duehr was dying, McPherson reconnected with the UW Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences - then chaired by Daniel Albert, MD - to learn how she could honor Duehr and others who had influenced her beginnings.
"When I came to Madison that May, after nearly 30 years away, I immediately had a wonderful rush of memories," explains McPherson. "I remember the lilacs in bloom. I love lilacs, and they don't grow in Texas!"
Albert notes that McPherson has treated the department generously by establishing lectures and organizing the UW Ophthalmology Alumni Association.
"In the 1990s, Alice was my mentor and Arthur Polans was my vice chair for research," says Albert, who holds an MD from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's in health administration from UW-Madison. "We realized that a lot of researchers at the UW were working in vision-related fields, but did not know about each other's work. We were motivated to bring people together, create a scholarly environment and collaborate."
To help further these goals, McPherson established a significant endowment at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. In 2005, the Eye Research Institute (ERI) became a reality. Albert became its founding director and Arthur Polans, PhD, its associate director. The duo stayed in those roles until July 2012, when the institute was honorarily renamed the McPherson Eye Research Institute.
Coincidentally on July 1, David Gamm, MD, PhD, took the reigns as director of the McPherson Eye Research Institute. School of Medicine and Public Health professors Albert and Polans remain active at the institute - Albert in eye pathology and ocular oncology; Polans in the study of natural products such as resveratrol in the treatment of eye diseases.
Albert praises Gamm as his successor: "David Gamm is an outstanding physician scientist, mentor and teacher, and I am certain he will be an outstanding director."
Today, the McPherson Eye Research Institute incorporates more than 100 UW-Madison vision scientists and scholars from more than 30 departments in eight colleges and schools who are working to gain critical knowledge aimed at understanding and preserving sight.
"Members include faculty in the visual arts, psychology, engineering, ophthalmology, zoology, biochemistry, computer science and more," says Polans, who earned his doctorate in neuroscience at UW-Madison.
The McPherson Eye Research Institute will move to the under-construction second tower of the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research (WIMR) in 2013. WIMR's unique design includes open laboratories and limited boundaries to allow clinicians and scientists to work in a collaborative, integrated environment.
"UW-Madison's spirit of collaboration is wonderful. It fosters open communication among departments, and it's congenial and cohesive," says McPherson. "Decades ago, clinicians and scientists were not speaking the same language. Come to find out, we all share the goal of preventing blindness."
With all this research flowering in Madison, McPherson is relishing some blooms of her own: "After a year of nurturing a special species of lilac bush that Dan Albert found for me, I had my first flower this year," says McPherson. "I don't think a lilac has ever bloomed in Texas before!"
By Kris Whitman
This article appears in the summer 2012 issue of Quarterly.
Date Published: 08/22/2012