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Follow up on Black History Month: Pioneering Eye Specialists

by Jaime Rodriguez, RDPFS Intern

As we exit Black History Month and begin March, which is also National Save Your Vision Month, we are highlighting the lives and accomplishments of pioneering Black eye specialists, in both ophthalmology and optometry, Dr. David Kearny McDonogh and Dr. William Hiram Lawson.

Dr. David Kearny McDonogh was the first practicing Black ophthalmology and otolaryngology (ENT or ear, nose, and throat) specialist in the United States. Dr. McDonogh, born in 1821, attended Lafayette College, becoming the first Black person to graduate from a college in Pennsylvania. After graduation, he was “rejected because of his race from every medical school he applied to.” Dr. John Kearny Rodgers, a founder of New York Eye and Ear Infirmary (NYEE) (now part of the Mount Sinai Health System), who Dr. McDonogh met while at college, helped him attend classes unofficially at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. While he did not receive his medical degree at the time, this training led to Dr. McDonogh becoming a specialist at NYEE, where he treated mostly eye diseases for 11 years. In 1850, Dr. McDonogh took “Kearny” as his middle name to honor his mentor who had helped him achieve success despite having been born a slave and the racial barriers of the time. More than a century later, Dr. Richard Koplin, a cornea surgeon at NYEE, sought to rectify the injustice regarding Dr. McDonogh’s medical diploma, and in 2018, Dr. McDonogh’s great-great-granddaughter accepted the posthumous degree on his behalf. For more information about Dr. David Kearny McDonogh, check out the article, “Celebrating a Pioneering Black Physician and His Remarkable Journey”.

The first licensed and practicing Black optometrist in the United States and Canada, Dr. William Hiram Lawson, graduated from the Toronto School of Optometry in Canada in 1912. He established his optometry practice in Detroit, Michigan, which opened in 1916. Dr. Lawson inspired future generations of his family to enter the profession, including his son Dr. William Emmet Lawson and nephew Dr. Lloyd Dawson, who followed in his footsteps. A pioneer in his field, when he retired in 1950, only 100 Black optometrists were practicing in the United States, representing just four-tenths of one percent of the total number of practitioners in the nation. For more information, check out the article “Dr. William Hiram Lawson, the U.S. and Canada’s First Black Optometrist”, here.

A current initiative aimed at “creating a pipeline for Black students into optometry,” Black EyeCare Perspective, was founded by optometrists Drs. Adam Ramsey and Darryl Glover. Their work aims to cultivate and foster “relationships between Black eyecare professionals and the eyecare industry.” The program, which also helps to connect communities with Black eye care professionals and businesses, includes a “Black Eye Doctor Locator,” which has a database of licensed optometrists and ophthalmologists in the United States. Check out their work on their website: Black EyeCare Perspective.