One hundred years ago, the American Optical Association held its 17th annual convention on July 18-25, 1914 at the Planter's Hotel in St. Louis, MO. This meeting was the first official "Congress" of the AOA, a title which the Association's annual meeting maintained for more than 80 years. The name change was significant because it described the Association's unique political structure--a group of nationally affiliated state organizations each represented by delegates--and embodied the spirit of democracy and equal representation that characterized the Progressive Era and the early years of Association's development. During this period in America and western Europe, there was great energy for institutional reform through regulation and the improvement of society through education and public health initiatives. The activities of the Association's first Congress clearly illustrate the influence of these movements in the dominant culture.
The 1914 Congress was considered exceptionally successful in terms of content and organization, although attendance was somewhat lower than previous meetings due to fears of July temperatures in St. Louis. The leading optometric publication of the period, The Optical Journal and Review, noted in their pre-convention issues that "rooms with electric fans will be in demand at the hotels" (34(4), July 16, 1914, Convention Notes, p. 245) and The Planter's Hotel assured attendeees that "each room has circulating ice water as well as a private bath" (34(2), July 2, 1914, Who's Who in St. Louis, p. 116) Indeed, it was close to 100 degrees during the Congress and at the Annual Banquet the men were encouraged to remove their dinner jackets if they were "wearing clean shirts" (34(6), July 30, 1914, Proceedings, p.300).
AOA President Albert Myer, perhaps concerned about the possiblity of a low turnout, issued a "greeting" sent to Association officers which was also printed in The Review. In addition to delineating the pre-convention committees, Myer rallied members to attend the conference by invoking the (perhaps apocryphal) words of the recently deceased former president, H.J. Cook, who on his deathbed was quoted as saying, "If I live, I'm going to the optometric congress in St. Louis. If I don't, I will be there in spirit." (OJRO, 34(1) June 25, 1914, Pre-Convetion Greeting to A.O.A., p. 39)
Myer's urgency was well justified; the Association was attempting a rapid organization and needed an active and engaged membership to create the scaffolding to support the movement toward professionalism. The pre-c0nvention committees Myer identified are recognizable as the predecessors of AOA's current sections, centers, groups and departments. These included the 1915 Conference Committee, the Scientific Section, the National Organization State Board Examiners, Education, Publicity, Legislation, Resolutions, Finance, Membership, Amendments, Welfare, Efficiency, Statistics, School Chart, Inspection Dispensaires, Professional Service and a General Committee comprised of Chairmen. The early structures of the Association reflect a common concern of emerging professions in the early twentieth century when "trades" were being distinguished from "professions" and organized medicine, in particular, was defining its territory. The Association endeavored to determine how the scope of optometry practice and the qualifications of practitioners should be defined and regulated. To this end, the AOA established committees dedicated to setting standards of practice, defining Association positions, educating practitioners and the public about the profession and working to consolidate optometrists under the wing of the Association for the purpose of forwarding beneficial legislation.
The Scientific Section, in particular, performed a critical function that remains among the most valuable to the Association's members, providing a forum for conducting and disseminating research and building a knowledge base that would allow for the establishment of educational standards and determine best-practices, clinical guidelines, and measures of competency (Duchan, 2011). In 1914, the Scientific Section required the submission of "theses" for membership and worked with the Education Committee and National State Board of Examiners to formulate questions for State certification examinations and to recommend textbooks and standards for University coursework, the latter duties would eventually be taken on by the National State Board of Examiners in Optometry, the Association of Regulatory Boards of Optometry and the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry.
The Scientific Section provided continuing education for optometrists at a time when only 33 states had laws requiring certification to practice and few Universities offered courses in the optometry (Columbia University of New York was the first in 1910 and Ohio State University is celebrating its centennial this year). The Section sowed the seeds of the Continuing Education program, the International Library, Archives & Museum, and the Clinical Resources Group. In the 1914 resolutions, the Scientific Section was given the responsibility of appointing a member in each state to "write optical history" for their home state; here the beginnings of the Optometric Historical Society are evident.
The American Academy of Optometry was yet to gain momentum as the academic arm of optometry. Indeed, the fledgling AAO was disbanded before 1914 and did not revive until 1922. For the time being, the Scientific Section fulfilled this role. One of the most popular events at the Congress were the suite of "Post-Graduate" courses held by the Scientific Section. Over 150 participants registered for these courses for a fee of $10 each. Frederic Woll's "Eye Dissection" course was well-attended, as were the others, despite what must have been sweltering conditions in The Planter's Hotel.
The courses began on the first day of the Congress and ended Tuesday, July 21st at noon, when the business of the Congress began.From Wednesday July 22 until the closing session on Friday July 24th, presentors delivered papers, committees and sections their reports, and delegates elected their officers. Congress attendees were given frequent breaks to explore more than 40 exhibitions and excursions for "ladies" included a Mississippi steamboat ride on The Belle of the Bend, a swimming party at the Lorelei Swimming Pool and a luncheon at Caffereta's Garden. (OJRO, 34(5), July 23, 1914, p. 434-436)
The proceedings of the Resolutions committee reveal the issues which most concerned organized optometry and other professional associations in 1914. Chairman P.A. Dilworth reported on several resolutions incuding one discouraging the
practice of advertising "free eye examinations" with the purchase of spectacles. The committee concluded that examinations were professional services which should require a fee and the optometrists are "professional men" who "charge for their services, and are not mere storekeepers selling merchandise." (OJRO, 34(5), July 23, 1914, p. 408) Thus, the Association, which had restricted its membership to "refracting opticians" in its second year of existence, further delineated the distinction between optometrists and opticians and reinforced visual exams as part of the optometrist's scope of practice.
Similarly, resolutions were passed to officially commend the organizers of the Panama-California Exposition and the women's magazine Collier's Weekly for their work in prohibiting and denouncing concessions sales of spectacles at expositions. By stopping opportunistic retailers from promising cures of various ailments through spectacle use without evidence and selling erroneous prescriptions to uninformed consumers without proper examinations, the Association sought to solidify their standing as uniquely qualified to identify visual anomalies and prescribe corrective lenses or therapy.
The committee also passed resolutions supporting various "fair trade" and "price maintenance" regulatory legislation, such as the Stevens Bill H.R. 13305 and authorized the Secretary to send a copy of the resolutions to Senators and Congressmen in Washington, D.C. In these resolutions, the AOA was joined by the National Association of Retail Druggists and other professional associations whose members operated as small retailers in addtion to their professional services. As most optometrists were small owners and operators in this period, the maintenance of a fair and level playing field with when dealing with manufacturers and "price-cutting" retailers. These actions by the Association illustrate the importance and ubiquitous nature of early lobbying efforts by professional associations on national regulatory policy.
The "Special resolution on the Situation in Pennsylvania" dealt with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Medical Licensure's attempt to designate optometry a branch of medicine (and therefore illegal to practice unless licensed as a medical doctor). A court decision in October of 1914 would vindicate optometry as a distinct and separate science.Legal battles in the states without laws regulating optometry and where the American Medical Association was engaged in a turf war with the AOA were also the subject of the resolutions in the 1914 Congress.
A resolution on motorist's vision also demonstrates an early interest in public health matters and an attempt to establish optometrists as experts on vision care and maintenance (Gregg, 1972, p. 60) The resolution recommended that states prevent visually impaired individuals from driving and to require use of glasses in visually impaired "chauffeurs" (OJRO, 34(6), July 30, 1914, p. 409).
The Publicity Committee under the direction of Chairman Reginald Augustine was also very active in promoting public health and education as a way to increase the scope of practice and business for individual practitioners. To this end, the Committee produced a series of pamphlets for distribution to optometrists and the public on various topics. It is worthy of note that "The Conservation of Vision and Modern Optometry" explains "how to obtain correctly adjusted glasses, without the use of drugs" (emphasis added). This directly references one of the pillars upon which organized medicine optometry's chief claims against organized medicine; the basis upon which the AMA by oculists (ophthalmologists) that proper refraction for the purpose of determining a prescription for corrective lenses required the use of mydriatic drops.
Augustine was a dynamic speaker and even after serving three terms as AOA president (1918-1921) he remained on the payroll as a travelling spokesman on behalf of optometry. Of special interest to Augustine was the expansion of practice into schools through regular vision screenings of children. In 1914, Augustine's speech to the Congress was a recapitulation of the forward to his 1910 publication Optometry in the Schools in which he encouraged optometrists and the AOA to reach out to teachers and parent organizations to incite an interest in seeking vision care for children: "You see the teacher has a derived interest in glasses through the fact that progress in the profession depends on the work on is able to get out of students . . . The teacher was the first link in my chain, and next came the parents" (p. 6)
Augustine, R.C. (1910) Optometry in the Schools. Kansas City, MO: Optometry Publishing Company.
Duchan, Judy. (2011) Emergence of Professionalism in Late 19th and Early 20th Century America. Accessed 6/19/2014 at: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~duchan/new_history/hist19c/professionalism.html
Gregg, J. R. (1972). American Optometric Association: A history. St. Louis: American Optometric Association.
Koetting, R. A., & American Optometric Association. (1997). The American Optometric Association's first century. St. Louis: American Optometric Association.The Optical Journal and Review (1914).Volume 33(11), pp. 729-733.
The Optical Journal and Review (1914).Volume 34(1-6), pp.1-450.
Illustrations1. Photograph of the 17th Annual Congress, American Optical Association, July 18-25, 1914, St. Louis, MO. The Archives & Museum of Optometry. American Optometric Association Records. 150 AOA Congress. Photo Files, 17th Congress, 1914. Panoramic photo in flat storage.2. Postcard (1920). Fourth Street North from Market Street Showing Courthouse and Planters Hotel. The Archives & Museum of Optometry. American Optometric Association Records. 150 AOA Congress. Ephemera, 23rd Congress, 1920. AOA Congress Ephemera.3. Scientific Section Lecture Course to Proceed the A.O.A. Convention. Excerpted from The Optical Journal and Review (1914), Volume 34(2), pp. 116.4. Neum, Roy H. Photograph of the Scientific Section Class in Eye Dissection at the AOA Congress 1914. The Archives & Museum of Optometry. American Optometric Association Records. 150.024 House of Delegates Sections. Photo Files, 17th Congress, 1914. Flat storage.5. Collier's: The National Weekly 52 (17) January 10, 1914. Cover.6. Driving Goggles. The Archives & Museum of Optometry Collection.7. Certificate to Practice Optometry. Pennsylvania Optical Society. Issued to W.T. Flanagan, 1915. The Archives & Museum of Optometry. Unprocessed Graphic Media. Flat Storage.8. Conservation of Vision9. Schools Book