Optometrist Cyrus Bass vs. the AMA

The Lawsuit:  Optometrist Cyrus Bass versus the AMA

 Third in a Three-Part Series

By Irving Bennett, O.D.

 

The last two published Historical Gems were devoted to the American Optometric Association Resolution No. 4 adopted in June 1954 in Seattle that essentially stated that “the field of visual care is the field of optometry,” and to the American Medical Association’s response a year later.  That response labeled optometry a “cult” and asked all medical doctors to no longer teach in optometry schools, etc.  This is the third and last in the series on this historical, but upsetting, time.  Another take on this subject is being written by two individuals who were active in AOA at the time.  It involved discussions with the US Department of Justice on “restraint of trade” violations by medicine.  This article will be published soon.

How will history label Dr. Cyrus Bass?  A hero?  An idiot?  Perhaps a Don Quixote.

It has been nearly a half century since the name Bass became a “household name” among optometrists – well, not quite a “household name” since the optometric press was not too eager to carry the story and “offend” friends in optometry  and  in medicine.

Nonetheless, regardless how he may be labeled, Cyrus Bass, an author, a practicing optometrist and a practicing psychotherapist, was a daring young man who, with very little financial or other help, became the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the powerful and large American Medical Association (AMA).  The case – one that Dr. Bass wanted to be a class action suit – was assigned to United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.

The date was July 24, 1964, a little more than a decade after the American Optometric Association (AOA) had adopted Resolution No. 4 that claimed the field of visual care to be optometry and those  unlicensed as optometrists had no right to be practicing that profession. The response from the American Medical Association’s (AMA) was rapid and strong.  It canceled all efforts for improved inter-professional relations with optometry and declared it unethical for any physician to work with optometrists, their colleges and their organizations.

Initially the lay news media was infatuated with the lawsuit and most major newspapers and major radio and television networks reported on this activity.  But as the case dwindled in the courts, and with no response by either the AOA or by ophthalmology, interest waned both within and without the professions.

Optometry began to adjust to the new inter-professional playing field and national and state optometric associations worked with “friendly” ophthalmologists toward some satisfactory accommodation.  The virtual boycott of optometry by medicine probably affected the schools and colleges the most as medically- trained faculty resigned only to be replaced by trained non-MD teachers, grounded in medical subjects.  At a local level most optometrists had arrangements with ophthalmologists for referral purposes.

This report is not designed to cover the Bass case completely, but some salient points and events stand out:

  • In addition to the AMA, the lawsuit was filed against eight Chicago ophthalmologists  charging violation of the Sherman Act
  • Initially, most in the professions thought that Bass was a “publicity-seeking crackpot” and the case would be thrown out of court before it saw the light of day.  How wrong they were.
  • Bass did have some legal training.  His credentials included a two-year study of the law.
  • There were several motions filed by the AMA to dismiss the case.  All failed.
  • The court asked Bass to file an “amended complaint” if he wanted the case to be a class action one. He did this in June, 1965 “in behalf of all licensed, self-employed, practicing optometrists in the United States.” Five fellow optometrists joined Dr. Bass in the amended complaint.
  • In February, 1966 three officers of the International Association of Boards of Examiners in Optometry (IAB), together with two Mississippi optometrists filed a petition as “Interveners” on behalf of the plaintiffs.  Briefly, the court denied the motion of the interveners to participate and also the court, three months later, denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the class action provision of the complaint.
  • Losing the motion to dismiss, the AMA became concerned with the possible financial penalty that might have resulted if it went through with this lawsuit.  The court gave medicine the way out:  in denying the dismissal of the class action suit, the Court “recommended that the case be settled amicably and suggested that the plaintiffs file a bill of particulars of what they would consider grounds for a settlement.”
  • On June 28, 1966, the AMA at its annual convention, which was held in Chicago, modified its anti-optometry resolution (#77) by allowing medical doctors to teach at optometry schools.  The modification of the resolution was, by implications, an admission of guilt.
  • The case did not die for two more years.  Much of what went on sounded like a real life soap opera.  The IAB, and its attorney Billups, became more involved.  The American Optometric Association took no public position but worked behind the scenes to see that the case was adjudicated properly.  Most optometrists were never fully aware of the Bass case or its implications even though probably no case in the history of optometry or even medicine has so many bizarre aspects.

On Thursday, May 11, 1967 the lawsuit against the AMA was concluded by stipulation between the plaintiffs and defendants based on a Memorandum of Opinion rendered by the Court.  The Defendants (the AMA) had agreed to stop discriminating against the profession of optometry and work towards better relationship and understanding between the two professions.

[Editor’s Note:  During the 1960s, AOA Counsel Ellis Lyons and others worked with the Department of Justice on the matter of an anti-trust action involving the American Medical Association.  To my knowledge, nothing on this matter has heretofore been reported.  The Optometric Historical Society is working with former AOA president Dr. Melvin D. Wolfberg and former AOA Counsel Attorney Tom Eichhorst in developing a report on this important historical action.   It will soon be published in the literature.]

Bass, who had reached out to his optometric colleagues for financial help to carry the case forward, was not successful raising the substantial funds he felt he required.  He said, after the agreement was developed, that he was forced to accept the settlement suggested by the court and he hoped that better days were ahead.

There is one thing for sure and it is the Bass lawsuit and the settlement agreement ending it, along with the Court’s summary of dismissal, deserves recognition in optometric history.

References

  1. Bass, Cryus Brochure – Report to the Optometric Profession. 1966
  2. Optometric Weekly. Chicago, IL Vol. 58:22, June 1, 1967, pages 15-18, 27-28
  3. Personal Correspondence,  John Robinson, Wallace, NC, 2010

 

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