Women in the American Academy

By Irving Bennett, O.D.

The American Academy of Optometry is a relatively young organization, having been officially founded in 1922; however, reference to it was made nearly two decades before that.  Unfortunately, actual minutes and original documents of the formative years are scarce.  It was not until 1960 that reports on the activities and news of the Academy began to be filed and saved.

Interesting question is when exactly did women join the Academy as “Fellows” or in any other capacity?  It appears that nowhere is that specific information recorded. Truly, we cast a wide net to find out.  And failed.

Unfortunately, the Academy had no formal place for storing its archives, so searching for files on the role female optometrists played in the early years of the Academy are not readily accessible.  We have uncovered a lot, however, in our research.

Readers need to keep in mind that there were no laws regulating optometry until 1901 and the main organization representing the budding profession was the American Optometric Association which came into being in 1898.  Many times from the early 1900s to 1922 there were numerous starts of a separate “national” optometric organization that would emphasize education – each of which spurted and sputtered and stopped.  Some may conjecture (humorously, I think) that the Academy had a slow beginning because it did not have the helping hand of both sexes.

Eugene G. Wiseman, an eventual founder of the Academy, for the 15 years before the Academy was officially founded, used the slogan,” Wanted: 1000 men” (italics are mine) as a rallying cry for getting more optometrists to form an educational organization.  He tempered his language for a push to getting more “optometrists” after he became President in 1934.

It must be noted, in all fairness, that the list of the names of attendees to the origination meeting for the American Academy in St. Louis on January 11, 1922 contained only initials instead of first names.  Were these females?  Sorry, we do not really know but the chances are they were not.

The very first reference we found to “women” in the Academy came from the Eighth Annual Meeting of the Academy, held in Boston.   Carel Koch was the Chairman of the Academy at that time and he appointed a “Committee on New Instruments and Techniques.”  He stated, “To enable members of this committee to get together and to meet at least several times during the year, I appointed on this committee only men and women (italics are mine) from Massachusetts.”

In 1930, Briggs Palmer, who became Chairman of the Academy that year, wrote a letter to The Optical Journal-Review dealing with the high ethical professional standards of Academy members stating that “A member must conduct his or her practice….” (again, the italics are mine)

Here are some more data from our research:

  • It appears that the first published list of Academy members in a geographic directory occurred in 1934.  However, two members were on lists dating back to 1929 – Fannie Gassett of Boston, MA and Gertrude M. Martin of Utica, New York. Since we could locate no other earlier listings with female names as members, we might rightfully assume that both Ms. Gassett and Ms. Martin were among the earliest members of the Academy.  These are the very first mentioned in any Academy document we could locate, so one of them owns the distinction of being the first woman optometrist in the American Academy.
  • Besides Gassett and Martin two other female optometrists appear in the 1934 directory: Frances P. Marshall (Washington, DC) and Esther M. Ingram (Winter Haven, FL).  Another female optometrist, Ethel S. Griffin of Sioux City, Iowa, did appear on the 1930 list of members but not earlier.   Linda Draper, who is in charge of the Archives and Museum of Optometry for Optometry’s Charity, did not uncover any Academy membership list for 1927 or 1928; however, the lists for 1923 and 1926 that she did locate do not contain any of the known women’s names.
  • Many female optometrists joined the Academy as “Fellows” in the post World War II era.  These include Dr. Dorothy Bergin who graduated in 1945 from the Los Angeles College of Optometry, the predecessor of the Southern California College of Optometry.  She was the first woman to have a paper accepted by the Academy for presentation at the Annual Meeting.  She was married to Dr. Frank Brazelton, an educator at Southern California College of Optometry (SCCO), who later served as Academy President.
  • Dr. Margaret Dowaliby of West Hollywood, CA was not only an optometric practitioner but also a member of the faculty at the Southern California College of Optometry.  She and her sister Pauline became Fellows of the Academy in 1946 and 1956, respectively.  Margaret did much in getting good national public relations for the profession.  She had her own weekly radio and then television show.  One of the bright lights of her career was that she produced, directed and served as commentator for the first fashion show in eyewear ever presented to optometrists and probably the first staging of its kind in the world.  That event occurred in the Crystal Ballroom of the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1950.
  • Other female optometrists who were early Academy members were:  Dr. Lois Bing, who died in 2009 at the ripe age of 99.  She joined the Academy in 1953 and was the creator of the Cleveland School Vision Forum that had a national impact. Lois Bing received the Academy’s Carel C. Koch Memorial Medal Award for outstanding contributions to inter-professional relations in 1997. Both Dr. Bing and Dr. Margaret Dowaliby were instructors at the first set to postgraduate courses given at Academy annual meetings.  That was in December 1955 at the Drake Hotel in Chicago.  Eleanore Thill a 1952 SCCO graduate who taught part time at that college, was another Academy pioneer who eventually became a member of the Board of Trustees at SCCO.
  • In the more modern era, Dr. Sarita Soni, was the only female Academy member to become the President of the American Optometric Foundation (AOF). She was AOF president in 1997-1998. Dr. Penelope K. Flom, wife of recently deceased Academy leader, Merton Flom, was the first woman to receive the Glenn Fry Lecture Award.
  • According to Academy files, the current female optometrist who has been an active Fellow of the Academy the longest is Dr. Gilda Coppola Crozier of Philadelphia.  Dr. Crozier is a retired member of the faculty at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry.
  • Only one woman optometrist ever went through the chairs to become an Academy president.  That person was Dr. Joan Exford Korb of Boston who became a Fellow of the Academy in 1965. In 1982 she was elected to the then Executive Council serving for 14 years, and as the Academy’s president 1993-1994.  From 1994 through 1998 Joan served the Academy as the Chair of the International Meeting Committee.   Before that she devoted many years to the AOF serving two times on that board from 1981-86 and again from 1998-2006.  At the Academy meeting held in 2009, Dr. Exford received the Eminent Service Award, an award that honors those persons who have rendered unusual service to the Academy.
  • Currently, one female optometrist, Dr. Karla Zadnik of Columbus, OH, is in the presidential succession line, as president-elect.  She received the Academy’s Glenn A. Fry Lecture Award in 1995 and is expected to become president of the Academy on November 20, 2010.
  • Reviewers of this Gem noted several female Academy members who have made substantial contributions to optometry and to the Academy.  Many of these women ODs are still in practice or recently retired.  So as not to leave out names inadvertently, we have elected to refer only to the pioneers for this Gem.  Our focus was primarily on the women in the American Academy from the very early days.

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