Retired UI professor and glaucoma specialist honored for volunteer work abroad

Former UI professor in the Department of Ophthalmology Wallace Alward has been recognized by international volunteer organization Orbis



Dr. Wallace Alward poses for a portrait in his home on Feb. 11, 2021. Alward recieved the Lee Award for his work in Orbis, a nonprofit which works to provide training and eye care to reduce preventative blindness.

Samantha Murray, News Reporter

To recognize his achievement in volunteering, a University of Iowa professor has been named one of the Heroes of Orbis. For 33 years, Wallace Alward has taught in the UI’s ophthalmology department.

The award honors distinguished volunteers within Orbis, a nonprofit which works to provide training and eye care to reduce preventable blindness.

Alward started his career in Alaska as a general physician. He said that despite his great respect for general medicine, he wanted to be a person who knew a lot about a little instead of a little about a lot.

Alward’s main study of focus, glaucoma, came from his residency at the University of Louisville. The city lacked any glaucoma specialists, which especially posed a problem for the city’s African American population, since glaucoma is typically harder to treat in Black communities, Alward said. According to Glaucoma Research Foundation, glaucoma occurs about five times more often in African Americans and blindness from glaucoma occurs about six times more often than non-Hispanic whites and earlier in life. According to the foundation, the reason for the disparity isn’t known.

The longtime professor then left Louisville to do his fellowship in glaucoma treatment in Miami. He said he always intended to come back to Louisville, but his fellowship in Miami changed his plans.

“I kind of fell in love with academic ophthalmology and the idea of being able to do research and teaching,” Alward said.

At the UI, Alward said that he was able to have the best of both worlds. Here, he was able to work in the clinic with real patients while teaching the students working alongside him. The Orbis hero said he enjoyed the difficult puzzles involved in both the teaching and the practice.

During his career, Alward was able to go abroad several times with the volunteer organization Oribs. While in Orbis, the glaucoma specialist traveled to underserved countries, giving lectures on medicine, seeing patients, and mentoring local physicians.

“[Orbis]’s a wonderful experience,” Alward said. “The other people who take part in Orbis are people who just want to help, you know. Nobody gets paid for doing this, and this just sort of attracts that kind of people you feel like hanging around all day.”

Despite his retirement from the university last summer, Alward still works in the Iowa City Veterans Hospital every Monday, teaching residents in the hospital.

Keith Carter is the chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at the Carver College of Medicine. Carter worked with Alward in the department and volunteered with Orbis as well.

Carter said that Alward stepping down was a tremendous loss to the department with his career being centered in all things academics. Carter added that Alward’s big impact in education was putting together the website Gonioscopy, a curriculum on understanding glaucoma.

“[The website]’s been a huge hit online because one, it’s free,” Carter said. “That’s one of the things he wanted to do with all of his educational materials – to make them free.”

Young Kwon is also a professor in the department of ophthalmology and visual science and Orbis volunteer. Kwon has worked with Alward for more than 24 years in glaucoma services.

Kwon said that Alward is an expert clinician and surgeon, often being sought out by patients and physicians for his work, but was most known in the field as a great teacher.

“He has dedicated his life to take care of glaucoma patients and to teach all of us the clinical science of glaucoma,” Kwon said. “Personally, I feel so fortunate to have been his partner and friend for over 24 years – I’ve learned so much from him.”