Optometrist Jailed for
Charging an Exam Fee

By Irving Bennett, O.D.

bakerLooking back it does not seem conceivable that an optometrist could be put in jail for charging a fee for an eye examination. But it did happen. The most likely person to stand up to those who considered optometry a cult was Charles F. Prentice of New York, considered by many as the “father of optometry.” In the 1890s Prentice worked hard trying to form an association of those who examined eyes and fit eyeglasses; they were generally called “opticians”. That association eventually became our American Optometric Association. Although Prentice was threatened with legal action and a boycott by some oculists, he did not suffer the fate of Fred Baker of Dallas, Texas.

Baker, in 1919, was a prominent AOA figure, who was arrested after he had fitted a pair of eyeglasses. He was charged with “practicing medicine without a license.” He faced a $500 fine and six months in jail! As it turned out Baker spent but one day in jail. It was no simple matter to resolve this thorny issue and the optometric leadership was very much aware of what was at stake in this lawsuit.

As author Jim Gregg reports the story in the book, “The American Optometric Association – A History” (1972) pages 79-80: “Fred Baker was arrested after he had fitted a pair of glasses on the charge that he was practicing medicine. Anguished cries went up in optometric circles. Baker faced up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Optometrists could visualize what might happen to them.

“If the Baker case was won and the court held that optometry was not under the medical practice act, there seemed little doubt that an optometric law could be passed quickly in Texas and then perhaps in the remaining states and the District of Columbia. Texas had no optometry act as yet, and the fundamental question was whether or not optometry was under the jurisdiction of the medical practice act in Texas. If the point was established in court that optometry could be regulated by the medical practice act, every optometrist in Texas could have been put out of practice. With such a judicial precedent, the fear was that medicine might begin to negate optometry laws in other states. Besides, the remaining states that had no legislation would likely never pass regulatory laws suitable to the profession. It was just for such a purpose that the Optometry Fund had been founded years before.”

Raising Funds for the Baker Case

“The delegates got so worked up over the Baker case that they made pledges on the convention floor (AOA Congress, Rochester, NY, July 1919) totaling almost the amount the Fund already had accumulated over the years. The money raised was directly earmarked for the Texas court action. The AOA members meant business. There was cheering and optometric flag waving, and money flowed into the fund. A hat was even passed and it was filled with silver dollars. It was a sensation when W.K.H. Yen, a native of China who practiced optometry in that country and was in the United States taking postgraduate studies, individually pledged $200. He was compelled to step on stage to shake with the officers and bow his acknowledgment of the applause.

“The amount of money raised was $40,000! [Editor’s Note: Think of that in today’s perspective. The AOA dues in 1919 were $2; in 2010, the dues amount to $768. That is 384 times the 1919 amount. If the convention members in 1919 could come up with $40,000, it could be argued that in today’s dollars that would be more than $15 million. Consider that when you are next solicited for AOA-PAC.]

“The members felt a sense of cohesiveness as they had never done before. Medicine, it turned out, had done optometry a great favor by attacking via the Baker case. The AOA passed a motion to take over the Baker case and to put every bit of its power and resources behind it. It was going to be a tough fight.

“The Texas optometrists had deliberately set up the Baker case. Baker agreed to be arrested; in fact, the act in question was performed on a minister in the presence of two other optometrists. Baker paid a great price in time, criticism, and money. He was close to being a martyr to optometry, if there is such a thing. The litigation lasted for two years, and Baker’s friends and patients read in the paper that he was a criminal. The case was tried in the criminal court. Baker’s practice dwindled away and his wife became ill.

“The County Court in Dallas found Baker guilty in March 1920 and sentenced him to one day in jail. There was an immediate appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which was the court of last resort for such a case in Texas. But the result was victory. The higher court found that Baker was not practicing medicine and that was the end of the medical roadblock to an optometry law in that state. The legislation (providing for an optometry law) was enacted in Texas in 1921.”

This is fourth in a series of short vignettes on historical events that occurred in the past sixty years of the profession of optometry. Readers looking for more information on the subject of this vignette can consult Hindsight: Journal of Optometry History, the official publication of the Optometric Historical Society. Copies of the article can be obtained by contacting David Goss, OD. Ph.D., School of Optometry, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405 or e-mail him at dgoss@indiana.edu.
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