Chatter: Who was ophthalmologist William H. Bates, MD?
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david 4.2k
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William Horatio Bates, 1860-1931

A history of Dr. W.H. Bates, gathered from various sources.

A successful eye-surgeon
In 1885 William H. Bates graduated with a medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York.  Dr. Bates became a successful and well-respected eye surgeon in New York, where he was an instructor of ophthalmology at the New York Postgraduate Medical School and Hospital from 1886 to 1891.

Dissatisfied
Dr. Bates became increasingly dissatisfied with conventional ophthalmological practice, and he consequently began his own research into eyesight disorders.  He had observed patients with a refractive error (e.g. short or long sight) that seemed to spontaneously change for the better, sometimes to the point of a complete reversal of symptoms.

This led him to question one of the most basic assumptions of the accepted practice of ophthalmology; namely, that once symptoms of refractive error were present in a particular patient, then nothing could be done other than prescribing glasses. Dr. Bates was not satisfied with the prevailing theory of accommodation (how the eye focuses).  The prevailing theory of accommodation was, and still is, that the curvature of the lens of the eye is the only part responsible for accommodation and that it is its inflexibility that causes failing sight.  

For years Dr. Bates felt there was something wrong about the procedure of prescribing glasses to patients who came to him about their eyes. "Why," he asked, "if glasses are correct, must they continually be strengthened because the eyes, under their influence, have weakened?  Logically, if a medicine is good, the dose should be weakened as the patient grows stronger."   

Dr. Bates gave up his lucrative practice and went into the laboratory at Columbia University to study eyes as they had never been studied before.  Disregarding all he had learned in textbooks, he experimented on eyes with an open mind.  He ran experiments on animals and examined thousands of pairs of eyes.  He never restricted himself to the usual eye examination room, but carried his retinoscope with him, inspecting the refractive state of eyes of both people and animals in many different situations.  He refracted eyes of people when they were happy and sad, angry and afraid. Much of his time was spent with children attempting to discover the cause of eye disorders.  
His retinoscopic findings indicated that the refractive state of our eyes is not the static condition textbooks reported, but varies tremendously with our emotional state.

Bates cured his own 'stone-hard presbyopia'
In his 1920 book Perfect Sight Without Glasses, Dr. Bates writes about his own eyesight improvement.  He had been told by various eye specialists that his lens was "as hard as a stone" and that "no one can do anything for you."  But through studying his own case intensively, and finding a way to not strain his eyes when wanting to read, he regained an accommodative range of 14 inches.  This means he had regained the ability to focus on objects between 4 and 18 inches from his eyes, so he was no longer suffering with presbyopic blur.

The Bates Method
He published an account of a little girl who developed temporary myopia when she lied to him.  That fact seemed very significant to him as it was consistent with other findings of myopia that people tend to become myopic when they feel apprehensive.  Dr. Bates found that the eye is never constantly the same, that refractive error changed momentarily, that mental strain and tension increased it and relaxation decreased it.  His conclusions were that imperfect sight was not possible without first a mental strain, that eyes are tough to what happens from the exterior, that they could mend rapidly from scratches, bumps, and even burns, but could be blinded by mental strain.  

Dr. Bates went on to formulate a new set of theories about eyesight and he developed what later became known as 'the Bates Method' to help people to improve their sight.  
According to Dr. Bates, poor eyesight is caused primarily by three things:  

  1. Stress or mental strain,
  2. Poor vision habits
  3. Wearing glasses.

Expelled
Ophthalmologists at the New York Postgraduate Medical School and Hospital put glasses on myopic doctors and Dr. Bates then had those doctors remove their glasses and cured them of myopia.  Dr. Roosa, the head of the institution, did not accept what Dr. Bates had been doing and he expelled Bates from the institution in 1891.

Preventing myopia
In 1896 Dr. Bates resigned his hospital appointments and began to engage in experimental work.  In 1902 he left New York and began to successfully implement his methods for preventing myopia in schoolchildren at the public schools of Grand Forks, North Dakota.  In 1910 he returned to New York and worked as attending physician at the Harlem Hospital in New York City.  He soon began implementing his methods for the prevention of myopia in some public schools in New York City.  At the Harlem Hospital he began to work together with Emily Lierman, who had improved her eyesight using his methods (they married in 1928).  They held free 'Clinic days' several times per week, usually having long lines of people waiting to be helped.

Publications
In 1891 Dr. Bates published his first article in a medical journal on the elimination of myopia.  While carrying on his experiments he developed a method of photographing the eye to reveal changes in surface curvature as the eye functioned. This work is discussed in "A Study of Images Reflected from the Cornea, Iris, Lens, and Sclera" (NY Medical Journal, May 18, 1918).  His researches on the influence of memory upon the function of vision are described in "Memory as an Aid to Vision" (NY Medical Journal, May 24, 1919).

In 1919 Dr. Bates began to publish monthly issues of his Better Eyesight magazine which was to continue for 11 years.

In 1920 he published his book, Perfect Sight Without Glasses, also called The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses.  

In July 1921 the American Journal of Clinical Medicine published an article titled: 'A Clinical and experimental study of physiological optics with a view to the cure of imperfect sight without glasses'.  This article is a great introduction to Dr. Bates' theories, and I especially recommend this to all optometrists, ophthalmologists as well as serious students of the method.

Private practice
In 1923 the Clinic was discontinued at the Harlem Hospital as Bates left the hospital and began holding a "Clinic Day" at his own private practice on Saturdays.  He continued to treat patients constantly for practically all forms of imperfect sight and tended to work 10 hours per day, 7 days per week.

After his death
Dr. Bates died on 10 July 1931, at the age of 70.  He died at his home in New York during a polio epidemic.  In 1940 his wife Emily republished his book and added a useful chapter at the end with suggestions on how to use the method.   After legal problems of other teachers, such as Margaret Corbett's court case in 1940/1941, Emily published an edited version of the book in 1943 and called it: Better eyesight without glasses.  This version left out much of the original text which made it more difficult to understand what Dr. Bates intended to convey to the reader.

Without easy access to the Better Eyesight magazines which did explain the method in great detail, the Bates Method became misunderstood by many people.  These days it is often associated with doing eye exercises.  This is not what Dr. Bates taught.  He recommended not eye exercises but the use of relaxed natural vision habits all day long.

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