Once upon a time, in the 20th century was born a little girl, Alice, blessed with a potential beyond her own imagination. Little did she know about the adventure that was ahead of her. She catered well to her curiosity and aimed at being an unstoppable force and created a wonderland that had never existed – the Retina Research Foundation (RRF). She dreamt of the impossible and converted the dreams to reality (a reality that was different than the others) by following the concept of consistency and never backing down. She was the “wildflower in a room full of wallflowers” and with her network of magic, the world of retina lived happily ever after. We feel honored to narrate the story of Dr. Alice Ruth McPherson [Fig. 1], even though the conciseness of this article belies the enormity of her extraordinary life.
After completing her undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin, she earned the title of Dr. Alice Ruth McPherson in 1951 as she completed medical school at her alma mater, followed by her residency in ophthalmology at the University Hospital, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She joined Dr. Peter Duehr, the chief of ophthalmology at the university, to sharpen her clinical skills. Dr. Duehr’s elegance and speed saw a summation effect with the addition of elements of Dr. McPherson’s innovative mind.
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road can take you there.” – Lewis Carroll
Dr. McPherson’s destiny took a golden turn when in July 1957, she became the first female vitreoretinal fellow of Dr. Charles L. Schepens [Fig. 2] at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, chose retinal diseases as the epicenter of her career, and became the first full-time female retina specialist in the world. She absorbed Dr. Schepens’ generosity and charitable principles and believed strongly in investing in basic research to achieve higher and stronger goals.
“Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” – Lewis Carroll
She began her career in retinal diseases with Dr. Schepens and has been unstoppable ever since. Her pioneering work on treatment of retinal diseases including scleral buckling, cryotherapy, xenon arc, and laser photocoagulation has been like seeds to the growth of retinal research. She married Anthony Mierzwa, a professional golfer, in 1958 and moved to Texas to accept a position at the Scott and White Clinic in Temple, Texas. Thereafter, she was made a consultant to the Santa Fe Railroad. She traveled through Texas and explored and appreciated the compassion, loyalty, and magnanimity of Texans. In 1960, she joined the Baylor College of Medicine as faculty. Her dedication and loyalty toward the Baylor School of Medicine is evident by the establishment of retina services and her 64 years of affiliation [Fig. 3]. She trained over 100 fellows over the years along with many residents.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” – Lewis Carroll
On October 1, 1969, Dr. McPherson founded the Southwest Eye Foundation (now called the Retina Research Foundation) – ”a voice for retina research.” Her dream project turned into a reality due to the liberal contributions of one of her patients, Joe L. Hill, an attorney who donated a legacy of his estate for the genesis of the foundation. The mission of the foundation was to reduce retinal blindness worldwide by establishing several funding programs aimed at research covering the entire spectrum of retinal diseases. Even though the early leaders of the foundation – Dr. Alice McPherson, Anthony Mierzwa, Fred Wallace, Knox Tyson, John C. Dawson Sr., Frank Jobst – had to struggle with weekly meetings and slow-paced progress, the outcome of their hard work has turned out to be fruitful for generations to come and beyond their imagination with a large and diversified national and international network.
On December 1, 1972, the Southwest Eye Foundation was renamed as the RRF. Dr. McPherson, the president and scientific director of the RRF, believed in providing education to all and bringing in a revolution by investing in innovative retinal research, and the RRF was able to provide its first grant in 1973. According to Dr. McPherson, “the foundation of RRF was made by the selection of a great board of directors” – a dream team with a common interest. Hence, under her superintendence, the RRF collaborated with several organizations and provided funds to deserving candidates to acquire higher education and fellowships [Fig. 4]. This enabled the RRF to achieve several milestones and shorten the innovation timelines of critical retinal disorders like diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, retinopathy of prematurity, retinoblastoma, melanoma, retinitis, amblyopia, and others. In 1978, the RRF also introduced “The Award of Merit in Retina Research” to recognize scientists with exemplary work toward retinal diseases, with Dr. Charles L. Schepens being the first awardee.
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” – Lewis Carroll
While Dr. McPherson was trying to solve the puzzle of struggles faced by the RRF, she did not let anything shake her determination and led the foundation with steadfast loyalty. The approach and mission of the RRF did not only enable innovations in terms of cutting-edge technology, but also made it possible for scientists to think beyond the box and offer hope for successful treatment in retinal diseases with ground-breaking research. She has herself written several book chapters and articles in peer-reviewed journals and has presented memorable lectures around the world.
“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you’re at!” – Lewis Carroll
In 2012, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Eye Research Institute (founded by Dr. Daniel M. Albert in 2005) was renamed in the honor of Dr. McPherson as the McPherson Eye Research Institute (MERI), and Dr. David Gamm succeeded Dr. Albert as the director of the institute. It is considered as a sibling institute to the RRF and runs on similar principles, contributing significantly to research on retinal disorders.
Dr. McPherson, indeed, is “a woman of vision.” Among the innumerable awards that she has received, a special mention goes to her recent accolades – the prestigious quadrennial Gonin Medal, the oldest medal in ophthalmology which was awarded to her in 2014 by the University of Lausanne and the Societe Suisse d’Ophtalmologie, the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Houston Ophthalmology Society in 2018, and the Retina Hall of Fame by the American Academy of Ophthalmology in 2019 in San Francisco.
Her leadership is exemplary and beyond comparison as she has led several committees in several positions and received distinguished honors from several universities and scientific organizations, including the University of Wisconsin, Harvard Medical School, The Retina Society, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American College of Surgeons, European Society of Ophthalmology, Houston Ophthalmological Society, Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology, Pan-American Ophthalmological Foundation, Schepens International Society, The Macula Society, and many more.
“I think I could, if I only know how to begin.” – Lewis Carroll
Dr. Alice Ruth McPherson, indeed, has lived an exciting journey full of significant developments and has brought in a revolution in the way retinal research functions today. Her generous contributions have enabled researchers to shorten the time taken to innovate. Her candor and integrity are worth a mention, and it is true that she has been a strong woman in a man’s world. She has proven to be an influential ophthalmologist, philanthropist, teacher, extraordinary leader, an inspiration, and a legendary woman who has created a legacy.
“Never accept there is nothing more to be done.” – Dr. Alice Ruth McPherson
We thank Dr. David M. Gamm from the McPherson Eye Research Institute for his precious time, support, encouragement, and for the endless support to the past, present, and future of research of retinal disorders. We also thank Mr. Michael Chaim (from the McPherson Eye Research Institute) for ensuring smooth execution of this article and for his generosity.
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