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 Lee (Edwin Lee) Allen  (1910 - 2006)

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Lived/Active: Iowa      Known for: regionalist scene painting, medical illustration-eye specialty

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Edwin Lee Allen ("Lee") (1910-2006)

Born on September 16, 1910 in Muscatine, Iowa, Lee Allen soon experienced the early loss of his mother, his family's relocation to Des Moines, and the emergence of his innate painting talents. His father, a self-taught engineer, purchased a set of oil paints for him as a present on his eleventh birthday. While in high school, Allen supported himself financially as a Western Union messenger, frequenting the offices of the Des Moines Register's art department, receiving tips and attention from its employees. Allen won numerous awards in local art shows for his watercolors and etchings, and in 1928, had his first, major accolades at the Iowa State Fair's art salon. While there, he met and befriended a fellow artist, Grant Wood, and the two men maintained a close friendship until Wood's death in 1941.

Following high school, Allen studied at the Cumming School of Art*, eventually enrolling at the University of Iowa in September 1929. A senior art student who was employed at the university's hospital, Emil G. Bethke, introduced Allen to the field of ophthalmic illustration. Lee routinely studied Bethke at work, learned his techniques, and as an undergraduate, made his first retinal drawings. The evenings often found Allen in Cedar Rapids, taking classes from Grant Wood, and becoming a protege of the master painter. In 1935, Bethke resigned and offered Allen the illustrator position, but the latter refused, seeking to be a professional artist.

During his brief, college stay, Allen would discover that his own father attempted the life of a portrait painter, only to struggle and choose engineering as a more reliable career. Despite this family history, Allen continued painting and exhibiting, winning several Iowa Art Salon honors - second prize in both landscape and oils (1930, 1931) and first prize in oils and watercolors (1931-1932, 1934-1935).

He attended the Stone City art colony* and later worked with Grant Wood on several WPA* projects, including the PWAP library murals for Iowa State University (1934, 1936-1937). During the summer of 1935, he briefly studied with Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist, learning fresco* techniques. Allen was awarded the Treasury Department mural commission for the Onawa, Iowa post office; his efforts produced the work titled Soil Erosion and Control (1938). A second mural project for the Emmetsburg, Iowa post office, titled Conservation of Wild Life, was completed in 1940. Allen was, once again, offered a medical illustration post at the University of Iowa in 1935 and still refused to accept traditional employment. However, married and expecting his first child in 1937, he reconsidered the hospital's offer and joined the staff of the Department of Ophthalmology.

Immediately faced with the challenge of knowing the complete anatomy of the eye, as well as its disorders and diseases, Allen started intensive self-education - viewing operations, attending medical school lectures, interviewing surgeons, diagramming procedures. Dr. C.S. O'Brien, department chairman, allowed Allen to audit whatever classes he wished, supported his independent studies, and later, saw that Allen's pivotal research would be credited and that he published in professional journals. Beyond the demands of being an accurate and highly technical illustrator, Allen created a surgical procedure, known as the Burian-Allen ERG Electrode (1954) and, in 1955, designed an examination lens (the Allen-Thorpe Gonioprism) that allowed physicians to view the eye chambers of glaucoma patients.

Tandem to these surgical interests, Allen sought methods to capture the interior life of the eye on film, establishing the field of ophthalmic photography. He was the first person to track blood flow through the eye chamber (using dye), and he pioneered retinal illustration through color, fundus photography. His colleague and collaborator, Odgen Frazier, designed the instruments from Allen's visions; the pair became internationally recognized for their achievements: (1) the Allen "dot" for all Zeiss, fundus cameras (1964); (2) specialized filters for fluorescein angiography (1969); and (3) the Allen Stereo Separator (1970).

While employed at University Hospitals for some forty years, Lee Allen did not formally exhibit his paintings, even as he completed private commissions (portraits) for hospital personnel. He served as president of the Association of Medical Illustrators (1959) and as president of the American Society of Ocularists (1969).  Following retirement in 1976, Allen began a private company manufacturing prosthetic eyes, based on his research and schematics.

He also returned to painting, choosing to show Iowa's landscape in a regionalist* style. Later, suffering from progressive macular degeneration, Allen employed his own talents as a researcher and inventor to capture his gradual loss of sight in vivid illustrations that are featured in his book, The Hole in My Vision: An Artist's View of His Own Macular Degeneration (2000). A retrospective of his paintings, medical illustrations, and other media were showcased at the University of Iowa's Museum of Art and the Brunnier Art Museum of Iowa State University in 2001.

Lee Allen died in May 2006, recognized as one of the world's leading medical illustrators, a pioneer who captured the intricacies and nature of eye disease through pen and film, and an early innovator in ophthalmic instrumentation.

When Tillage Begins: The Stone City Art Colony and School, Published online 2003 by the Busse Library, Mount Mercy University, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

 * For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

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