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About NEOS

The creation of the New England Ophthalmological Society was first proposed on May 1, 1884 by Hasket Derby, Benjamin Joy Jeffries, and Oliver Fairfield Wadsworth, all ophthalmologists of Boston. They proposed to organize an ophthalmological society similar to one that had been successful in New York City for 20 years.

The creation took place six months later on the evening of December 2, 1884 at the home of Benjamin Joy Jeffries in South Boston. Fourteen ophthalmologists from four of the six New England states attended. Four other ophthalmologists expressed interest but were unable to attend. Thus the Society’s original roster had 18 names.

The principal item of business on the agenda that night was the adoption of a constitution and bylaws. The first article read: “This Association shall be called the New England Ophthalmological Society,” and the second article read: “The object of this Association shall be the study and advancement of ophthalmology.” Although the Society’s constitution has since seen revisions and new bylaws, no change has been made in these first two articles since they were written over 130 years ago!

Article three, however, posed some problems to the founding fathers. As it was finally adopted it read: “The members of this Society shall be graduates in medicine who take an especial interest in Ophthalmic Science.” Remember, in those days there were no national boards of certification in the medical specialties, and that medical specialization was in its first generation in this country. Who were these men who had an especial interest in ophthalmic science? Did this mean that the membership would necessarily be limited to practicing ophthalmologists? Dr. Wadsworth did not think this would be so. He thought that alienists for instance, might be included. The problem of eligibility for membership was not solved until almost 40 years later when certification by the American Board of Ophthalmology was made the first requirement for membership.

The acting chairman, Gustavus Hay, appointed a nominating committee. While they were out of the room deliberating, Dr. Jeffries exhibited some old ophthalmic instruments that had belonged to his father, John Jeffries, cofounder of the Massachusetts Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary. He also showed the first ophthalmoscope imported into this country in the early 1850s by Dr. John Homer Dix.

When the committee returned, they submitted the following slate of candidates that were elected by one ballot: President, Hasket Derby of Boston, surgeon to the Massachusetts Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary and one of the founders of the American Ophthalmological Society; Vice President, Jan J.B. Vermyne, an ophthalmologist of Dutch descent who practiced in New Bedford, Mass.; and the first Secretary-Treasurer, Myles Standish. This man was a sixth generation descendant and namesake of the Myles Standish who had had his courtship with Priscilla in the Plymouth Plantation. Dr. Standish would in time become the Henry Willard Williams, Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School.

The constitution and bylaws were adopted, the officers were elected, the dues were set at $1 a year, and it was decided that the suppers should be of the simplest character. With all this accomplished, the meeting adjourned with the 14 creators genuinely weary from their labors. Before sending them out in the cold December night, Dr. Jeffries provided them with a light collation and a little brandy. And that was the beginning of the New England Ophthalmological Society, its first meeting, its creation.

The first woman ophthalmologist to become a member of the Society on November 4, 1889 was Dr. Ella Dexter, who had an office on Marlborough Street in Boston.

For the first nine years, the Society met in the homes and offices of members living in Boston and from time to time in various Boston hotels, hosted by out-of-town members. This pattern came into being because it was the responsibility of each member, in turn, to be host of a meeting. When the Society was organized it was determined that there would be no formal papers presented at the meetings and no reports of the proceedings would appear in print.

Thus it is to the minutes books that we must go for accounts of the meetings. Here one gains the picture of a scene that was leisurely, quiet, restrained, informal, and at the same time rich in scientific interest. The eighth meeting, held on Dec. 1, 1885, just one year after the first meeting, can be taken as being typical. The host of the evening was Francis Peleg Sprague. Dr. Sprague was unique among the ophthalmologists of the time. He was a man of large personal means. He had no private practice. His service to ophthalmology was confined solely to his tour of duty as a surgeon to the Eye and Ear Infirmary.

Sixteen members assembled in Dr. Sprague’s Back Bay home at 7:30 in the evening. The president, Dr. Hasket Derby, was in the Chair. According to what had become established custom, he began at one side of the room and asked each gentleman in turn for an oral communication. The first to respond was Dr. Erastus Eugene Holt of Portland, ME. He told of a case of glaucoma he had treated by iridectomy and paracentesis, but that later it was necessary to enucleate the eye when the tension returned. Next, Oliver Fairfield Wadsworth of Boston told of a similar case that he had had in which the increased tension proved to be an intraocular tumor. Ezra Dyer of Newport, RI, reported on a case of traumatic paralysis. Dr. James J. Putnam, an alienist from Boston, commented on Dr. Dyer’s case from a neurological point of view. Then Dr. H.G. Miller of Providence, RI, described a case of unexplained amblyopia in a 65-year-old woman, and Samuel B. St. John of Hartford, Conn., gave a detailed presentation of the surgical treatment he had used in a case of epicanthus. Dr. Sprague, the host, spoke last on a case of glaucoma in which eserine had had a deleterious effect. The scientific meeting ended promptly at 9:30. Then all partook of a collation Dr. Sprague provided and enjoyed a social hour.

This pleasant informality could not last. By 1893, the membership had risen to 40 with an average of 20 members regularly attending the meetings. On November 7th of that year, Dr. Standish made the statement that the Managers of the Massachusetts Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary had given the New England Ophthalmological Society permission to hold their meetings at the Infirmary, and allowed the use of the parlor and the dining room and the right to hire a caterer.

The Society continued to hold the majority of their meetings at the Infirmary until 1960. The problem of the suppers in 1893 was solved by setting up a fund and assessing each member $5 a year. At each meeting an allowance of $20 was made by the treasurer from this fund to the member whose turn it was to act as host.

The year 1893 is interesting in other respects. That year Dr. Jeffries suggested the utilizing possibilities afforded by the tissue produced as a byproduct of the Jewish rite of circumcision. He had used such donor material to good advantage in one case. And in that year, the subjects of moon blindness and maternal impressions were discussed for the last time.

The pattern of the scientific meetings remained unchanged until 1899 when it was decided that the attendance was too large for the method to be practical and instructive. On December 5 of that year, it was voted to ask for formal papers, and it was decided to use printed programs for the first time. On January 2, 1900, the first formal paper was read. Its title was “A Case of Concentric Dimunition of Both Visual Fields, Probably of Cortical Origin.” The presenter was Oliver Fairfield Wadsworth, and he took 15 minutes to say what he had to say.

At this time, Dr. Wadsworth was the Henry Willard Williams Professor of Ophthalmology, at Harvard Medical School. This brings up Dr. Williams’ name. For reasons that have never been made public, Henry Willard Williams, long-time chief of ophthalmology at Boston City Hospital and Harvard, the first man to use sutures in cataract surgery, a medical writer of note, and certainly the Boston ophthalmologist with the greatest national reputation, never became a member of the New England Ophthalmological Society. His name was never proposed for membership. Dr. Frederick Verhoeff, who attended his first Society meeting and presented his first paper in 1900, used to say that there were those in Boston, particularly at the Infirmary, who could not abide the old gentleman and his autocratic ways.

And now the name of Frederick Herman Verhoeff has come up, and with it one more interesting aspect of the New England Ophthalmological Society in its early years. Originally there was no limit in membership, but in 1896, the membership was limited to 50. This meant that a man could be proposed as a member, accepted as a member, attend meetings, present papers, but could not become a full member, with all privileges, until one of the 50 died or resigned. Dr. Verhoeff had to wait two years to become a full member. He was lucky. Others had to wait more than three years! The Society dropped this rule in time.

Before we leave the 19th century, one more note of interest. The Society, remember, was founded in 1884. Then, as now, with the exception of 1918, six meetings a year were held. Since then, right down to today, the Society has never failed to hold a regular scheduled meeting. Not a single meeting has ever been cancelled although the Feb. 1, 1898 meeting did pose certain problems. The time of the meeting came and only two members were present: Dr. Standish the president, and a young member named Alexander Quackenboss. Dr. Standish handled the matter with dispatch worthy of his noted ancestor. He appointed Dr. Quackenboss acting secretary. Together they composed the minutes that noted that the severity of a storm had blockaded the electric car lines and the railroads. For this reason the meeting adjourned at the early hour of 9 p.m. to enable the two members present to walk home.

Dr. Verhoeff gives us a picture of what it was like at the New England Ophthalmological Society meetings during the early years of this century. The group, 20 to 40 in number, would assemble in the trustees’ room of the Infirmary. The room, although somewhat elegant, was not large. The older men, exercising the right of their seniority, took the comfortable seats around the center table. Younger men, such as Verhoeff, took the less comfortable seats in the rear, and if there were no seats, they stood. The meetings were entirely in the hands of the senior men. They arranged the programs, selected the guest speakers, held all the offices. When it came to the discussions, they dominated the scene. If, and only if, there was time left over, then the younger men could speak or ask questions. There was a decided air of proper Boston establishmentarianism about the whole thing that was particularly galling to a young man in a hurry such as Freddie Verhoeff.

Time changed all this. In those days it was the custom when a member died for his colleagues to compose his obituary, read it before the Society, and then incorporate it in the minutes. It is here we read of the passing of the old guard, how one by one the creators ceased to be–Wadsworth, Jeffries, Vermyne, Holt, Dyer, Hasket Derby, Putnam, Sprague, St. John. By the time of World War I, only one or two remained as emeritus members. The Society passed into the hands of a new generation. Now the dominant figures were Greenwood, Lancaster, Lowell, Souter, Easton, Ryder, Wells, Regan, George Derby, and F.H. Verhoeff, whose impatience had been rewarded when he was elected president in 1921.

One striking change made by Verhoeff and others was in the guest speakers who came before the Society. Not satisfied to be confined to figures from the American scene, their program committee took advantage of the presence in the country of any European ophthalmologist of note. Barraquer of Spain, Elliot of India, Van der Hoeve of the Netherlands, Imre of Budapest–all came to Boston. But the greatest figure to come was Ernst Fuchs, the grand old man of Austrian ophthalmology. Fuchs had trained a whole generation of American ophthalmologists in his clinic in Vienna before World War I. That war and its aftermath had left him in financial straits. He was too old to begin again. Some of his American students conceived the plan of bringing him to this country, sponsoring at various centers lectures and instruction sessions. The Professor would have a portion of the revenue realized. George Derby, a former student of Fuchs, arranged for the New England Ophthalmological Society to be Fuchs’ sponsor in their area.

Hofrat Fuchs arrived in Boston just prior to Christmas in 1921. A complimentary dinner was held at the Algonquin Club at which autographed copies of Fuchs’ pictures were sold to the guests. This netted $640 for the fund. His lectures and instruction sessions netted an additional $2,575. Much of this money went to Fuchs. The remainder was used to buy the Society’s first projector, one for lantern slides. All this generosity and spending reduced the balance in the treasury to $37.07. At the next meeting it was voted to raise the dues to $6 a year. By the way, in 1921, there were 77 active members, 9 emeritus members, making a total of 86 members in the Society. The Society’s membership did not exceed 100 until World War II.

Excerpted from Archives of Ophthalmology, Volume 92, September 1974
Originally written by Charles Snyder and Harry E. Braconier, MD