A Musical Optometrist: The Story of PCO’s Third President

normwallis2.jpgHe first visited the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) in the spring of 1964 while he was in Philadelphia for a week as a musician with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) performing King Lear; eight years later, he returned as the College’s third president.

Norman Wallis, PhD, was the first outside of the founding Fitch family to be president; the first – and only – president from the United Kingdom; only the second president – if you include founder Dr. Albert Fitch – who is not a PCO alumnus; and that just scratches the surface for what makes him unique.

He also had an atypical scholarly background prior to becoming the College’s president.
When he was in high school Dr. Wallis had plans for a career as an officer in the Royal Navy. His goal was to attend the Britannia Royal Navy College (Dartmouth), which is the equivalent of the U.S. Naval Academy (Annapolis). But at 15 he was involved in an accidental explosion that damaged his left eye – making him legally blind in that eye. He spent a month in an eye ward of a hospital and it was during that time that he had to re-assess what he wanted to do as his vision of a career in the Royal Navy was no longer an option. It was his own experience with his eye problems that led him to explore optometry.

As he studied optometry at City University, London, he was expanding his love of the trumpet, which he started to play at age six.  So, when he completed his optometric education and training, and was licensed, he enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy of Music while beginning to practice. When he graduated a few years later, it was this dual role of optometrist and classical trumpeter that helped steer his early career.

Dr. Wallis opened a practice in London and worked with the RSC and several of the leading symphony orchestras in London at the time. To keep his busy professional lives organized, he had two separate appointment books, one for each career – and found the flexibility a perk.

In the spring of 1964, the RSC undertook a four-month tour, with two months in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, followed by two months in the U.S.  While on tour, Dr. Wallis wrote a series of articles for an optometric journal in the United Kingdom about his observations on optometry and optometric education in each country. He made sure to visit well-known optometrists and educational programs during this time.

That’s why he got in touch with John Crozier, OD ‘48 –, who hosted him for his visit to ‘Old Main’ campus, and who introduced him to the history and heritage of the College.

After returning to the U.K. when the tour ended, he arrived back in the U.S. that Fall to enter graduate school at Indiana University (IU). His plan was to teach in the optometry program in London, along with building a practice and playing classical music, after completing a master’s degree in physiological optics. But he stayed at IU for four years to earn a PhD, and that led him in a completely different direction. His academic work and his future career also took him away from his trumpet in 1968.

After IU, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Houston’s College of Optometry. In addition to his teaching and research responsibilities, he was appointed assistant dean and received his first taste of academic administration. His major contribution was starting the graduate program in physiological optics by recruiting a campus wide faculty and steering the process through the university’s Board of Regents. A few short years later, in 1971, he was appointed director of Special Studies at the New England College of Optometry (NECO) where he developed a number of programs, including a two-year accelerated OD program for experienced PhDs in relevant sciences. And, then in 1972, after just a year at NECO, he applied for the open president position at PCO. “It spoke very well of the Board of Trustees to hire me, as I was not an alumnus of PCO, I was not yet a U.S. Citizen, and I was only 34-years-old,” he said. “They really took a chance on me, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity they gave me to have a key impact on optometry and optometric education.”

Dr. Wallis’ tenure brought about significant changes to PCO. During his time as president, he worked with the faculty to re-invent the College with a new curriculum. This new curriculum emphasized preparing future optometrists for an expanded scope of practice which addressed not only eye health, but also the overall systemic health of the patient. Dr. Wallis led the faculty to create an academic program that provided a thoroughly integrated background in biological, behavioral, visual, and clinical sciences that could be applied to patient care services. He also helped evolve the Externship Program to provide fourth-year students with a taste of the real world of optometry and to increase the number of patients seen before graduation, by requiring them to spend one quarter of three at an off-campus site at a College approved practice or clinical facility.

tei.jpgWhen he arrived, the clinics weren’t up to par compared with the new, federally funded academic building recently spearheaded by Dr. Lawrence Fitch. Dr. Wallis convinced the Board of Trustees that PCO should create an integrated clinical system that resembled an ambulatory “eye hospital,” to be called The Eye Institute (TEI). The concept was new to optometric education, when clinical education was typically the next step from the teaching laboratory setting. He argued that the quality of patient care should be equally important as the quality of clinical education. With the board in agreement, Dr. Wallis wrote and submitted a proposal to the same federal agency that had provided the funding for the new academic building, to create TEI. To his surprise, PCO received “every penny of the amount requested.” Part of the grant required PCO to generate approximately $1 million of the full cost – and according to Dr. Wallis, this  became a rallying point for the Alumni Association of the College, with meetings large and small throughout the states with pockets of alumni, and at national meetings.  These efforts were coordinated by Harry Kaplan, OD ’49, FAAO and Arnold Mazer, OD ‘40. Dr Wallis credits this outreach effort of great significance on how alumni viewed their alma mater.

The construction of TEI, a $5.1 million project, began in 1976 and it opened in 1978 with Dr. Wallis as patient Number One examined by Leonard Semes, OD ‘78, a fourth-year student who went on to become a well-known educator at the University of Alabama School of Optometry. The Eye Institute set a new standard for eye care and served as a model for the development of similar facilities across the country. But to make it work as planned needed an excellent executive director and Dr. Wallis was pleased to recruit Dr. Charles Mullen from his position as director of Clinics at NECO.  “I was able to set the goal and obtain the funding,” said Dr. Wallis.  “But Dr. Mullen was critical in putting all the pieces together for successful operation.”  The Eye Institute was an unrivaled setting of comprehensive eye and vision care, with a multidisciplinary approach – optometrists, ophthalmologists, opticians, optometric technicians, students, and other healthcare professionals working together under one roof. One other key step for the success was his appointment of Thomas Lewis, OD ’70, PhD, FAAO, PCO’s fifth president, as chief of staff of TEI, to work at the interface of patient care and clinical education to ensure both aspects of this new eye care teaching program would be successful.

Based on his experience in creating the course for the use of drugs for diagnostic purposes required by the passage of an amendment to the optometry act in Rhode Island, and for which he was responsible to coordinate and lead while at NECO, he established the Center for Continuing and Post-graduate Education at PCO to build on that experience and help states expand the scope of optometric practice. With PCO faculty joined by experts in pharmacology and pharmacy from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science (the founding college of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia) and the Thomas Jefferson University Medical School, PCO had a major impact on drug legislation in over 20 states, including West Virginia and North Carolina, the first states to allow ODs to treat eye diseases. In addition to the education, there was also a legislative effort to support the state association’s new laws, with Dr. Wallis and key faculty members testifying in the state capitals and meeting with Governors on several occasions.

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Dr. Wallis also implemented the Full Cost of Education Concept, establishing agreements with surrounding states to contribute financial support to the cost of the education of their residents—agreements that still exist today.

Dr. Wallis’ seven-year presidential term ended in late 1979, when he became the second full-time executive director of the National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO®) on January 1, 1980.

During his tenure at the NBEO®, three major revisions of the National Board Examinations were accomplished, including creating a standardized “hands-on” clinical skills examination as Part III, plus establishing the Treatment and Management of Ocular Disease (TMOD®) examination as the gold standard for the required knowledge and clinical skills needed to meet the new responsibilities of the expanded scope of practice.

In the 25 years that Dr. Wallis was executive director, the National Board gained the respect of optometry internationally and gained recognition by other health professions for its excellence in assessment programs to assure entry-level competence on behalf of the state licensing boards and the public. To honor his quarter-of-a-century service, NBEO established the Dr. Norman E. Wallis Award for Excellence, given each year to the optometry student who earns the highest score in the country on Part I of the NBEO examinations.

Also for his service to optometry and optometric education he was awarded four honorary Doctor of Science degrees; from PCO, the Illinois College of Optometry, the Southern College of Optometry, and the State University of New York. He was also inducted into the National Optometry Hall of Fame in the Fall of 2005.

Presently, Dr. Wallis is the president of PAI Management Corporation (PAI), which he founded in 1984. PAI is an association management company with extensive experience helping biomedical and health-related professional membership societies increase membership and conference attendance in addition to establishing a sound financial base.

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It wasn’t until 2012 that Dr. Wallis picked up the trumpet again, 44 years after he last played one at IU. In 2014, he formed the New Brass Quintet, a chamber music ensemble representing the brass section of a symphony orchestra. They perform regularly in the Washington metropolitan area at public concerts, at retirement communities, at churches, and at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The quintet has a YouTube channel and programs, titled “Baroque to Jazz,” present a wide range of musical genres, from serious original music for brass quintet, arrangements of classical masterpieces, light music, and jazz. 

Dr. Wallis is now back where he started his interesting career!