In ophthalmic circles he was simply known by his last name. Borish. Very fitting that Dr. Bill Baldwin would write a biography about this icon simply titled Borish. When I was a graduate student in Optometry nearly 40 years ago (Yikes!), his book – Clinical Refraction – was the bible of the day yet we referred to it merely as “Borish”. It was a unique text, up to the 3rd edition in 1975 by the time I was a student. I had obtained a copy of Borish’s autobiography awhile back and put it aside to read, which I finally had the chance to do this month on Clearwater Beach. It was published in 2006 and available via Indiana University. You can find it through the usual outlets such as Amazon, but if I were to purchase it today I’d go through the AOSA’s offer of a copy of the book through its sustaining membership level. It is a must read if one really wants to understand the heritage of Optometry, as well as the heritage of the man whose family name was Bereshkofsky in Russia but Borish by the time he was born in Philadelphia.
Dr. Baldwin fills in the details of a very interesting era in Optometry during which there was creative tension between Dr. Borish and members of OEP, the Optometric Extension Program. As background, Dr. Baldwin writes:
“At the time Borish graduated from NICO, E.B. Alexander was a vice president of the AOA. All state legislatures had passed optometric licensing laws that contained educational requirements. This move resulted in a growing emphasis by the AOA on raising educational standards for those optometrists already licensed. Under Alexander’s direction a department of education was formed within the AOA.” Baldwin continues:
“A.M. Skeffington, a graduate of Needle’s early school in Kansas City, joined Alexander to provide the other element, an array of topics largely from the disciplines of learning theory and Gestalt and Watsonian psychology. Skeffington became a major figure in the history of developmental optometry. During a car trip Needles and Borish took to a convention, Needles told Borish that Skeffington had started a practice in Kearny, Nebraska, shortly after graduation. After a brief period in practice, he had contacted Needles to ask if he would recommend him to optometric groups as a lecturer … he began to recommend Skeffington.”
It was at this juncture in the mid 1930s, according to Baldwin, that discord developed. Pressure was exerted on schools to include OEP-developed educational materials in their curricula. Needles refused to consider changing the curriculum at his school, which led Alexander and Skeffington to urge OEP-oriented optometrists to recommend that prospective students attend cooperating schools, specifically the Southern College of Optometry and the North Pacific College of Optometry. Baldwin opines that OEP influence among AOA trustees and presidents was significant until the mid to late 1960s when Henry Hofstetter of IU was elected to AOA’s Board of Trustees and ultimately served as President. Not wishing to alienate OEP members, Needles arranged for Borish to travel with Skeffington to state meetings in the summer of 1937 so that he could incorporate these ideas into his clinical optometry course. As related by Baldwin:
“Borish listened with growing consternation to a repetition of Skeffington’s material every three days in a different setting. Skeffington paid little attention to accepted classical science that underlay the practice of Optometry. He introduced new definitions for refractive errors and ocular functions that bore no resemblance to those considered standard by contemporary scientists. Many accepted his expositions merely on his authority. Admirers frequently nodded affirmatively without understanding. Most disturbing to Borish was a lack of support for Skeffington’s assertions.”
What follows is a very interesting trail of how Borish ultimately distilled his version of OEP methodology in a way that was palatable enough for Skeffington and Alexander to propose that Borish take over as chief lecturer for OEP. This would enable Skeffington to assume the role of Director a proposed national education center for OEP in St. Louis that never materialized. Borish declined the invitation, an offer that was accepted by a student in the first graduating class that Borish had taught after his faculty appointment at NICO. The student’s name was Gerald Getman. Baldwin emphatically notes that Borish was not an outspoken critic of OEP practice nor did he harbor ill will toward its leaders. Baldwin leads one to believe that the same could not be said of Hofstetter. Borish went on to become very influential in a variety of optometric academic institutions, and co-authored the first Manual of Accreditation for Schools and Colleges of Optometry.
A personal note of historical interest here. While a student at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry I discovered notes from a summer internship program at the State University of New York’s College of Optometry that opened my eyes to OEP analysis in a way that Borish hinted at but never elaborated. It was contained in a book on Visual Analysis by Dr. Leo Manas, complemented by a book on Corrective and Preventive Optometry by Dr. Louis Jaques. The OEP monthly papers were an important lifeline to me while in academia, helping to balance my perspective. OEP has enjoyed academic resurgence in programs such as the Behavioral Scholar in Residence at NECO.
There are so many fascinating insights on Borish by Baldwin, and young practitioners can draw inspiration from the fact that Dr. Borish struggled in private practice well before he succeeded. His first venture, together with two other ODs, failed after 18 months. When he had a dispute in academia and walked away to devote full time to private practice he had trouble paying his lab bills. It was not until he became a skilled contact lens practitioner, making his reputation at solving “problem cases”, that his practice became solvent. His tremendous volunteerism constrained his financial success at various times, but he ultimately succeeded to the point where he was able to sell his practice to younger associates and re-involve himself in academia. Borish was a Renaissance Man, inspirational in many ways – and this book is a phenomenal tribute to his humble origins, determination to succeed, and beneficence.