Well, if you weren’t in Philadelphia for AOA’s Optometry’s Meeting, you missed at least three great reunions: on a personal level, a reunion with your friends; on an academic level, a probable reunion with your alma mater (Pennsylvania College of Optometry); and on a historic level, two old (very old) friends named Ben and John (Franklin and McAllister, that is.)
Indeed it only seemed appropriate – what with our national meeting taking place in Philadelphia – to have Ben’s old friend, John McAllister, the true father of eye care in America, stop by the POA reception.
John McAllister, born in 1753, immigrated to New York from Scotland in 1775. In becoming a newfound Patriot, he was taken prisoner by the British a few weeks after the colonists declared their independence in 1776. Upon his release, he headed to Philadelphia in 1781 and started a whip and cane business on Second and Market Street. He expanded his wares by purchasing the stock of a hardware merchant, within which he discovered a bushel basket of ready-to-wear eyeglasses. His business prospered as customers sampled what seemed to best suit their needs.
The British naval blockade provided John his revenge because no longer would eyeglasses be coming from Europe; his challenge, though, was to develop techniques for making lenses and frames. He was the first to accomplish this in America. His friend, Benjamin Franklin encouraged him to pursue an even greater pursuit; vision care, which is now known as Optometry. In those days, quackery was common and often resulted in blindness. In 1796, he moved his business to 48 Chestnut Street where he not only provided glasses but also sight testing. Additionally, he made scientific instruments. His knowledge of optics continued to increase and he applied this knowledge towards eye care.
His son, John Jr. was born in 1786 to the former widow Frances Wardale (a cousin of the famed navigator Captain Cook). Since Philadelphia was still the capital of the United States, John, Jr. grew up attending the Congressional debates and knew George Washington and John Adams. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1803 with honors and joined his father’s work in 1811. Between them, they served the ophthalmic needs of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Chief Justice Tilghman, Count Joseph Bonoparte, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, et al.
John, Sr. died in 1830. John, Jr. continued to advance eye care and was the first to diagnose and correct astigmatism. He also provided eye examinations and glasses at Wills Eye Hospital. He served as the manager of Wills Eye Hospital from 1848 to 1859. Civically, he devised a system for numbering the houses according to street layout and was a lifelong member of the Pennsylvania Historical Society, which still houses his collection. He died in 1877 at the age of 91.
John, Jr.’s sons William Young, John and Thomas continued the family’s legacy in eye care. Thomas Hamilton McAllister established the first optometric practice in New York City where it flourished until his death in 1899. Like his father, William was also associated with the Wills Eye Hospital and served on the Philadelphia City Council. He was the first to teach physicians in the country the practice of optometry. He retired in 1882 and his sons (John, Sr.’s great grandsons) continued his practice well into the first third of the twentieth century. One of his sons Frank W. McAllister settled in Baltimore in 1879 and was one of the founders of the AOA. His son, John McAllister’s great-great-great grandson, was Dr. John Warden McAllister who (at the time of this reference’s publication ) was practicing on Franklin Street in Baltimore. Five generations of ophthalmic care, birthed in the City of Brotherly Love.
This historic account was gleaned from a pamphlet published in conjunction with an optometric exhibit at the William Penn Memorial Museum in Harrisburg. The exhibit was the result of a grant from the POA and the Vision Conservation Institute
Robert Owens, O.D., F.A.A.O.