Dr. Ward A. Olsen, Professor Emeritus of Gastroenterology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, died on September 24, 2023, at the age of 89. Ward was raised by his parents Orville and Sophia Olsen in Holmen, Wisconsin (population of approximately 450 when he left for college), a town he described as “unbelievably tolerant of its sometimes semi-lawless children.” He grew up ice skating and swimming at Halfway Creek with his siblings Roger, Clark and Sandra, hunting and fishing in the nearby woods and lakes, working in the local cannery in the summertime, and conducting chemistry experiments in his parents’ fruit cellar. He was always grateful for the education he received at Holmen High School, where many of his teachers were, in his view, as strong as the best professors he had in college.
Ward received his B.S. from the University of Wisconsin (where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa) and his M.D. from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine (where he was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha). He then completed his internship and residency on the Harvard Medical Service of the Boston City Hospital, ultimately serving as the Chief Resident. After completing his fellowship in gastroenterology at Boston University Hospital, he moved with his wife Peg (whom he met in a downhill ski club while Peg was a nursing instructor at Boston City Hospital) and their three children (Eric, Edward, and Julia) to Madison, Wisconsin, where he became a Professor of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. He served as Head of the Gastroenterology Section, as well as Chief of the Gastroenterology Section at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans’ Hospital. He was an international leader in carbohydrate digestion and absorption research and was widely published in a number of journals, including the Journal of Clinical Investigation and the New England Journal of Medicine.
Ward (with Peg of course) led a lifetime of family adventures until shortly before his death. He loved sailing with his family on Lake Mendota and Lake Michigan, canoeing in the Quetico Provincial Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, backpacking in Grand Teton National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park and, perhaps above all, cross-country skiing – a sport he pursued with the same methodical preparation and competitive zeal that marked his academic career. He proudly completed 10 American Birkebeiners, a 55-kilometer cross-country ski race held each year in Telemark, Wisconsin.
Following his retirement in 2000, Ward and Peg traveled extensively and enjoyed yearly family vacations and holidays with their children (including Julia’s spouse Tori and Edward’s spouse Debrah) and their grandchildren (Christian, Celia, Neve, Teigan, and Aidan) in California, Oregon, and Door County. He was a wonderful spouse, parent, and grandfather.
One of Ward’s colleagues created a bumper sticker that reads: “What Would Ward Do?” That phrase sums things up perfectly for our family – he was role model for all of us. He will be remembered for his integrity, humility, honesty, intelligence, hard work, calm demeanor, kindness, dry wit, and grace (particularly in the face of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis late in life).