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#179 John Walsh, Class of 1972, Established the COPD Foundation

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, Leaders & Legacy

Did you know about the former Army Ranger and Norwich alumnus who started a research foundation to cure the disease that took his mother at just 46 years old?

A natural leader, at Norwich, John Walsh majored in government, played lacrosse, and served as class president. He went on to serve as an Army Ranger.

In 1989, at age 40, he was enjoying life as a successful businessman and real-estate developer. But his life was about to change. He learned that he and his twin brother suffered from the same genetic disorder that claimed their mother at age 46: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) brought about by Antitrypsin Deficiency (Alpha-1). Their sister also received the same diagnosis.

When Walsh, who didn’t smoke, sought treatment for his symptoms, he discovered that little was known about Alpha-1-related COPD. After participating in a National Institutes of Health study to help develop a protein therapy and producing a CD to raise awareness of Alpha-1, he joined forces with two others who also suffered from the disorder—they dubbed themselves, aptly, Alphas—to establish the Alpha-1 Foundation. To date, the organization has donated over $70 million to research. Walsh also established AlphaNet, a not-for-profit healthcare management company that helps people with Alpha-1 navigate their care.

In 2004, Walsh founded the COPD Foundation, and through that work he established screening and advocacy programs to improve the lives of those with COPD. He became a leading voice in the effort to empower patients.

When he died in 2017 due to complications from a brain injury after slipping and falling on ice, the New York Times published his obituary, in which Grace Anne Dorney Koppel, the foundation’s president and wife to Ted Koppel, called Walsh “a giant in patient advocacy.”

After his passing, the foundation established the JW Walsh Fund to Cure COPD to honor his memory by continuing the important work that he began, after his own diagnosis nearly three decades earlier.