The McAllister Collection: The Legacy of American Optometry's Founding Family

The Archives & Museum of Optometry curates historical records, manuscripts, photographs and other objects that document the origins and development of optometry in the United States. This month we are celebrating America's birthday by processing a collection related to one of optometry's own founding fathers: John McAllister, Sr.

About the Collection on The McAllister Family of Philadelphia

The McAllister Family Collection [Mss 501.01] was assembled by the International Library, Archives & Museum of Optometry (ILAMO) staff shortly after the establishment of the Archives in the early 1970s. In these early days, there were no stewards of optometry history and the AOA's History Committee worked diligently with the librarians to compile research on individuals who made significant contributions to the profession. The McAllister collection contains correspondence between researchers working with the Committee, the Optometric Historical Society and the head librarian to gather together information for future researchers.

For this reason, the McAllister Family Collection is not an organic collection resulting from the accumulation of materials during the course of an individual's lifetime or work. Like many small museums and archives in the mid-twentienth century, ILAMO staff and the members of the Committee created an artificial assemblage of  materials comprised of published articles, photocopied manuscripts and original archival material brought together from many different sources. In processing the collection, we have an opportunity to revisit the arrangement of the materials and assess their condition and value.

Preservation and Access

To make this collection more accessible, we have created a finding aid and digitized the original material for online publication. We have also taken steps to preserve the more fragile items found in the collection by rehousing them. For example, these early-nineteenth century letters  shown below were removed from cramped folders, encapsulated in Mylar and stored flat to protect them from damage. Online access will ensure that researchers are served without taking a toll on the original documents.

Flattening Document for EncapsulationEncapsulated original letter from Joseph Wood to John McAllister, 1822Encapsulated Documents Ready for Flat Storage


to support our ongoing efforts to preserve optometry's legacy! Be sure to select "Museum and Archives" from the "Program Designation" dropdown menu.

The McAllister Family of Philadelphia

 John McAllister, Sr. December 1858.

John McAllister, Sr. (1753-1830)

John McAllister emigrated from Scotland to New York in 1775. Trained as a cabinet maker and woodworker, he worked briefly for a New York City carpenter until the outbreak of the American Revolution in April of that same year. After spending a short time in a New Jersey prison for his revolutionary activities, McAllister landed in Philadelphia in 1781. At the end of the War in 1783, McAllister took advantage of his new country's entrepreneurial climate and rapidly flourishing trade in consumer goods, opening his first shop on Market street where he specialized in manufacturing and selling buggy whips and canes.


Chestnut Street

The Shops at Chestnut Street

By 1796, McAllister had expanded his trade and moved his thriving business to a new location at 48 Chestnut Street [later 194 and 728 Chestnut]. McAllister purchased stock for his new shop including assorted hardware and a small lot of spectacles. This one-off acquisition proved so popular that his inventory soon began to shift toward all things optical, including both instruments and eyewear.

McAllister became an avid student of optics, acquiring the technical skills of an optician in order to properly fit spectacles and the clinical skill to refract his customers' eyes so that he could provide more accurate prescriptions. He became a well-known "refracting optician" and attracted a prestigious clientele. McAllister is widely considered the first practicing optometrist in the United States.

The McAllister family optical business began in Philadelphia, but the family practice expanded to New York and Baltimore, spawning six generations of optometrists. McAllister's sons and grandsons became accomplished vision care providers and vocal advocates for organized optometry, playing leadership roles in the American Optometric Association, state affiliates and allied organizations.

Thomas Jefferson's Bifocals

Among his many high-profile customers, McAllister catered to several U.S. Presidents and political heavyweights, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. President Thomas Jefferson solicited many pairs of spectacles from John McAllister, Sr. during his first two terms in office (1801-1809). He continued to consult McAllister about his changing vision throughout the remainder of his life. An 1806 letter held at The Becker Medical Library at Washington University, St. Louis, reveals that Jefferson ordered a pair of bifocals from McAllister like those used by his friend, Benjamin Franklin:
Jefferson to McAllister 1806

"You have heretofore furnished me with spectacles . . . what a convenience it would be to have different magnifiers in the same frame. Dr. Franklin tried this by semicircular glasses joined horizontally, the upper & lower semicircles of different powers, which he told me answered perfectly. I wish to try it, & therefore send you [a] drawing . . ."

America's First Case of Astigmatism Corrected with Cylindrical Lenses

The Science of Astigmatism

McAllister's service to the Washington elite may have allowed him access to the newest discoveries and innovation in European optics. Astigmatism was first identified by the British physicist Thomas Young in 1801, but it was not until the 1820s that a few European scientists and opticians attempted to use cylindrical lenses as a corrective device for the vision anomaly. This treatment was a revelation and not well known or understood outside the scientific community, however, original correspondence held in The McAllister Family Papers suggests that McAllister was providing his customers with cutting-edge care.

Wood to McAllister, 1822
In 1822 Joseph Wood of Washington, D.C. sent a letter to John McAllister and Sons requesting a pair of cylindrical lenses, remarking that "These glasses have been very much extolled in my hearing by scientific men." Whether McAllister received the request because of his connections or had previously supplied the lenses based on his own observations with patients is not known.  However, other letters in the collection hint that he was a well-known supplier of cylindrical lenses less than a decade later.

The French Connection: M. Chamblant's Cylindrical Lenses

A letter from Henry Von Phul, a St. Louis, MO merchant  and brother of the artist Maria Von Phul (June 18, 1829) reveals that McAllister had been prescribing cylindrical lenses ground and patented by the Parisian optician M. Chamblant for some time. In his request to McAllister, von Phil asks for:

 ". . . a pair of the New French glasses  . . . described in a . . . paper you handed to me last Winter.  . . . They are made by Chamblant a Frenchman, the glasses are ground so as to have segments of cylinders in the opposing sides at right angles to each other. Should you be able to procure such a pair of spectacles for me in the United States  . . . cost will be no object."

von Phil to McAllister, 1829

Chamblant is well-known among historians of physics and optics as the manufacturer of cylindrical lenses supplied to British engineer and inventor John Isaac Hawkins in 1826 and astronomer George Biddell Airy not long after. Like other early optometrists and  physicians of the time, McAllister demonstrated a keen interest in the science of optics and the use technological innovation in improving human performance.

The Reverend Chauncey Goodrich's Astigmatism

A series of correspondence in 1828-1829 between McAllister and the Reverend Chauncey Enoch Goodrich at the Oneida Academy in Whitesboro, New York is most often cited as evidence of the first prescription of cylindrical lenses to correct astigmatism in the United States. Goodrich had written to others about his unique vision problem and was subsequently referred to McAllister who tested his vision and fit him with lenses that corrected his lifelong astigmatism.

Goodrich to McAllister, 17 March 1829

On March 17, 1829 Goodrich wrote to McAllister to beg him to replace a pair of cylindrical lenses previously supplied and recently broken:

"I hope this letter & the last will leave nothing unsaid . . . I wish you to repair my glasses and set them in a pair of new frames, remembering that they must be set in with the flat side in front, and with the straight direction of the concave side in a horizontal direction."

The Founding Fathers of American Optometry

The Transformation of a Trade: The Refracting Optician becomes an Optometrist

By the late-nineteenth century, four generations of McAllisters had been refracting eyes and prescribing glasses. John McAllister, Jr. was now a well-respected optometrist and a manager at Wills Hospital Eye Hospital in Philadelphia (1848-1859), where he taught physicians to refract the eye. His son William Young McAllister continued to work at Wills while maintaining a private optometry practice and optical retail store. W.Y. McAllister's professional perspective had a distinctly optometric bent.

1860, W.Y. McAllister Catalog and Monograph

The monograph (circa 1865) "Our Eyesight" includes a detailed "Diagram of the Eye" and a "Notice" on the inside cover which serves to:

"abolish . . . erroneous ideas in regard to the use of Spectacles . . . [and ensure] utmost care is given to properly filling Oculist's prescriptions and . . . [that] frames [are] properly adjusted. . . to suit the various optical defects of sight."

The McAllisters successfully straddled the breach between a retail trade and healthcare profession, participating in the diagnosis and treatment of vision anomalies as well as the fulfillment of prescriptions. By 1898, when the American Optometric Association formed, John McAllister's great-grandson Francis Wardale (F.W.) McAllister was primed to become a charter member.

Founder's Speech to the District of Columbia Optometric Society: Echoes of the Four Pillars

With more than a century-long legacy at his back, F.W. McAllister addressed the District of Columbia Optometric Society in June of 1919.  In his speech, McAllister extolled his ancestors and the achievements of the profession since the Association's founding.

F.W. McAllister to the DC Optometric Society, 1919

He was not satisfied, however, with the present state of the profession and called for increased legislative advocacy to improve the status of optometrists relative to allied medical professionals, and for higher standards in optometric education in order to enhance patient care and increase public awareness. McAllister could fairly be called one of the early articulators of what the AOA now refers to as its "four pillars." The original full manuscript for McAllister's speech is held at the Archives & Museum of Optometry.

McAllister's Museum

In his address to the Society, McAllister also predicted the importance of his family's legacy to museums:

If a museum if ever formed in this country, I shall take great pleasure in presenting these old fashioned spectacles to it.

While we do not know for certain what became of those original spectacles, we have identified two pairs spectacles with the McAllister mark in our collections.

The first pair were among the earliest McAllister glasses and likely originated at the 48 Chestnut Street store. This silver-framed pair of spectacles feature the oval lenses, c-style bridge, pin-in-slot telescopic arms and narrow tear-drop finial ends consistent with early-nineteenth century eyewear.

Silver-framed McAllister Spectacles

The next generation of McAllister spectacles in the AMO collection are this beautiful pair of gold-framed glasses with octagonal lenses, a crank bridge and loopslide telescopic temple arms with tear-drop finial ends. If you pass your mouse over the image, you can see a page from the 1860s McAllister & Bros. catalog featuring a pair of spectacles very like those in the picture below.

Gold-framed McAllister Spectacles

The McAllister Legacy

The McAllister family embodied the innovative and independent spirit of early American optometry. Like his contemporaries in Washington, D.C., London and Paris, McAllister embraced the future during a period that should resonate with all of us in the new millennium.  John McAllister found success at a time of great uncertainty characterized by unprecedented technological change and global political upheaval that had worldwide environmental and economic consequences.

What an appropriate way for us to celebrate this July 2017 at The Archives & Museum of Optometry! Make sure to visit us again to see what new McAllister treasures we have discovered and what new objects and collections we have that make us reflect as well as inspire us to act. 


to support our ongoing efforts to preserve optometry's legacy! Be sure to select "Museum and Archives" from the "Program Designation" dropdown menu.


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