It’s not an exaggeration to say that optometry was invented in New York. Charles Prentice, the closest thing optometry has to a George Washington, was an influential—some would say infamous—practitioner from New York who, among other things, worked with Columbia University to begin the first university-affiliated optometric education curriculum. Prentice’s friend and fellow New Yorker Andrew Cross wrote seminal texts on retinoscopy. Another friend, Frederick Boger, founded this very publication in New York in 1891, where it was published for many decades. Boger was vociferous in lobbying for the formation of a national organization, and worked with Prentice, Cross and Charles Lembke to establish what came to be known as American Optometric Association, which also operated out of New York for decades.
Countless other prominent doctors kept New York the epicenter of the optometry profession for at least another half century. Even as late as 1968, the city’s cadre of influential optometrists held sufficient clout as to host a transformative meeting at LaGuardia airport wherein the power brokers of optometry decided to move the profession into the world of medical care and pharmaceutical prescribing.
In time, most of the big optometric institutions moved away from New York, lured to other locations for a variety of reasons, and the city lost its pre-eminence in the profession—or rather, New York became just one power center among many across America that helped optometry flex its collective muscles.
Sadly, another optometric institution is about to say farewell to the Big Apple, as the Vision Council recently announced that Vision Expo East will move to Orlando in 2025.
Legendary optometric writer and educator Irv Bennett launched a precursor to Vision Expo called OptiFair in 1978. It was an overnight sensation, drawing a crowd of 6,511 to the New York Hilton for that first meeting. OptiFair, and later Vision Expo East, created an early template for how to run a successful event that somehow managed to combine a high-minded educational conference with the wheeling and dealing of a retail trade show.
I don’t begrudge the Vision Council for its decision. Clearly, they believe the new venue will be better equipped to host such a massive event than Manhattan’s aging Jacob Javits Center, and the new city a bigger drawing card for ODs in the bustling Southeast than the prospect of a trip to chilly New York in mid-March. But I’ll be one of many old-timers (my first Vision Expo East was in 1992) who’ll feel a twinge of sadness next spring as the New York era draws to a close for the conference and, increasingly, the wider profession. I do wonder what will come of the retail and fashion side of things at VEE. Will those vendors and buyers follow the meeting south? Orlando is many things, but a fashion mecca it is not.
I guess the positive way to look at this move, and optometry’s larger exodus from New York, is that the profession’s success elsewhere validates its core concepts and business model. Optometry started as the province of a handful of eccentric “refracting opticians” in New York, who built a new profession that suited their aims and ideas. But the model they created works—everywhere. Even in Orlando.