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Kathleen Digre

Distinguished Alumni Award for Service (2019)

Kathleen Digre

81MD, 85R – Neurology, 87F – Ophthalmology and Visual Science

Kathleen Digre is one of the premier neuro-ophthalmologists in the world. In 1999, Digre founded, and still directs, the Neuro-Ophthalmology Virtual Education Library (NOVEL), which houses the world’s definitive collection of neuro-ophthalmology education materials. She is currently a distinguished professor of neurology and ophthalmology and vice chair of clinical strategy in the University of Utah School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology. She also serves as chief of the neurology department’s division of headache and neuro-ophthalmology. Digre has received the Rosenblatt Prize, the University of Utah’s highest faculty honor, in recognition of career excellence in research, education, and administration, and she holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Zurich. She is president of the American Headache Society.

Digre came to the University of Iowa to pursue a PhD in English but took a year off to study pre-medicine “just to see if I liked it and could do it,” she says. The loss to English has been medicine’s gain.

A staunch promoter of women in medicine, Digre cites her own experience entering a field in which women were under-represented. She was only the fourth woman to interview for a neurology residency at Iowa. In her interview, Digre was asked, “Can girls be neurology residents?” She answered, “No, but women can.” She got the job.

Digre points to several faculty members who supported and inspired her at Iowa, including H. Stanley Thompson, MD, who founded and ran the neuro-ophthalmology unit for 30 years. James Corbett, MD, encouraged Digre’s passion for neurology and focus on headache. She credits Harold Adams, MD, with his love for his students and willingness to involve them in projects, and Carol Aschenbrener, MD, chief medical education officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, for her mentorship of female medical students. Each of them had a unique influence on Digre’s career as a physician-scientist and educator.

In addition to her position in neuro-ophthalmology, Digre is director of the University of Utah Center of Excellence in Women’s Health and has been an adjunct professor of anesthesia and obstetrics and gynecology. She has conducted numerous career development seminars for women in academic medicine.

Digre’s career as an advocate and educator is admirable. Her crowning achievement, however, has changed the way information is shared and educates neuro-ophthalmology residents and fellows all over the world. NOVEL has established a new learning paradigm and is now extending beyond its role as a virtual library to produce electronic textbooks.

“With creativity, persistence, and tireless effort she established a virtual library for neuro-ophthalmology that is used by literally thousands of teachers and students around the globe. Without her initiative and engagement, this project would never have been accomplished. Dr. Digre simply is an inspiring leader and a role model for many more scientists and clinicians to come,” says Klara Landau, MD, at University Hospital Zurich.

Digre’s husband, Michael Varner, MD, completed his internship, residency, and fellowship training at Iowa. They have served as Help Our Students Travel (HOST) volunteers, welcoming fourth-year Iowa medical students to their home when the students interview for residency programs in Utah.