A Closer Look: The War Years

War PortraitsDuring World War I, before the Pennsylvania State College of Optometry (PSCO), later renamed the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), was established, Dr. Albert Fitch, founder and first president of PSCO, and his fellow optometrists in Pennsylvania offered the services of optometry to the War Department. Their hope was to have optometry recognized and optometrists commissioned as officers. The War Department initially accepted their offer of assistance. However, the Surgeon General ultimately organized optical units within the Medical Corps that did not include optometrists.
 
Two decades later as the country prepared to enter World War II, optometrists were still not granted commissions. Many individuals and the American Optometric Association (AOA) worked with officials at all levels of the government to change the status of optometrists in military service. The first branch of the military to recognize optometrists as commissioned officers was the Naval Reserve. By the end of the war, the Navy had offered 40 commissions and authorized 10 more. The Army offered a sergeant’s rating to OD soldiers, but many were refracting with the rank of private. According to the AOA, at the end of WWII, 2,000 optometrists were serving in the military, a little more than 9 percent were commissioned, and very few were practicing their profession.
 
Like all institutions, PSCO was significantly affected by World War II. Until 1943, optometry students received draft deferments and class sizes were large with approximately 100 students. In 1944, most students could be drafted and the class size dropped to a low of 22 in 1945. Optometry students who were drafted had no special status and might enter the Medical Corps as enlisted technicians or corpsmen, work in Fire Control operating optical instrumentation that controlled weaponry, or serve their country as infantrymen. Many students who interrupted their studies returned to PSCO after the war supported by the GI Bill, which paid for their tuition, books and living expenses.
 
1945-military-student.pngMany class yearbooks documented the war through the eyes of the students attending PSCO, describing the loss of their classmates who entered the Armed Forces during their time at school. Dedicated pages to the classmates serving in the war and “Buy War Bond” advertisements became a standard page in each of the yearbooks from the years of WWII. President Fitch addressed the fact that many peers were drafted or voluntarily postponed their optometric education to join the war effort. Many PSCO students had the privilege of completing their schooling through deferment from Selective Service because they were training for an occupation essential to the health and welfare of our country.
 
In 1943, President Fitch stated in his letter to the graduating class, “Some of you, upon graduation, will immediately enter the Armed Forces of our nation. Regardless of the tasks you may be assigned, perform them to the best of your ability…eye care is critically needed and is essential so that war workers attain maximum efficiency.”
 
An excerpt from a letter written by a student part of PSCO’s Graduating Class of 1944:
“Remember me? Don’t try to remember my name…I’ve got sixty of them. I’m the guy who started to study optometry back in 1941, and then traded my physics book for the Soldier’s Handbook and my dissecting instruments for a bayonet. That was long ago, but the memories burn deeply and I can’t forget. Especially not now, at graduation time…”

1946militaryportraits.png“To dream is a soldier’s license, and the tears are washing away from blackness and futility of today. The mud of Italy oozes about my ankles, my body is baking on the sands of Africa and the fever of disease grips me in New Guinea’s jungles; but, like a dream it all fades away, and for a few moments I’m walking on Spencer Avenue with my classmates…I walk, because, for a few moments, I’m with you, fellows, back at school…The class of ’44 is graduating and I’m one of them, and the rifle I grip with my hands is a diploma…”
 
Today, optometrists are members of the health-care team as commissioned officers in all branches of the military.  As independent primary health-care providers they diagnose, treat and manage diseases of the visual system and the eye. Military scholarships are available to optometry students, and many PCO graduates serve on active duty and in the Reserves.