Reader and Industry Forum

Remembering Dr. Irvin Borish, Optometry’s Foremost Icon

Reader and Industry Forum

Remembering Dr. Irvin Borish, Optometry’s Foremost Icon

By Edward S. Bennett, OD, MSED, FAAO

My roommate in optometry school once encountered Dr. Irvin Borish in an elevator and showed him the photograph of Albert Einstein on the cover of Time magazine. He asked, “Isn’t that you, Dr. Borish?” Dr. Borish simply smiled. However, the similarities between these two brilliant visionaries are rather remarkable. Einstein published influential research papers; so did Dr. Borish, including optometry’s bible Clinical Refraction. Einstein loved the arts and had a passion for music; Dr. Borish had a similar passion with his love for painting. The theory of relativity launched Einstein to international superstardom, and his name became a household word synonymous with genius all over the world. Dr. Borish’s seminal text, articles, teachings, inventions, and lectures resulted in his achieving the same iconic status in optometry. In fact, just as Albert Einstein was Time magazine’s “Person of the (21st) Century,” Dr. Borish was voted the “OD of the Century,” by Review of Optometry, while being the first inductee into the National Optometry Hall of Fame.

School Ties

Dr. Borish’s passing at age 99 on March 3rd marks the loss of someone who honorably represented optometry for a remarkable 76 years. Born in 1913 in Philadelphia to parents who came to the United States as immigrants, he graduated with highest honors from the Northern Illinois College of Optometry (NICO) in 1934. He eventually served as NICO’s clinical director until moving to Kokomo, Ind. to start an optometric practice.

It wasn’t long before he joined a small group of Indiana optometrists with the mission of initiating an optometry school to be associated with Indiana University (IU), in which they were successful. Dr. Borish served as a professor of optometry, director of clinics, and established the school’s first clinical research unit. In 1995, long after he had retired, the IU School of Optometry honored him by naming its clinical research center the Borish Center for Ophthalmic Research.

Upon retiring from IU in 1982, he was appointed Benedict Chair—the first such position in the United States—by the University of Houston College of Optometry, which also later honored him with the establishment of the Irvin M. Borish Endowed Chair in Optometric Practice. He continued to lecture and to positively impact students and optometrists well into his 90s, delivering his last commencement address at the University of Houston at age 97 in 2010.

A Lifetime of Accomplishments

His accomplishments are too many for this tribute, but here is a partial overview of his remarkable achievements. From the American Academy of Optometry he received the William Feinbloom Award, the 2002 Eminent Service Award, and the 1987 Max Schapero Memorial Lecture Award, the highest honor from the Section on Cornea and Contact Lenses.

From the American Optometric Association he received the 1968 Apollo Award and the 1989 Distinguished Service Award. He also received the Indiana University Herman B. Wells Visionary Award and, in 1996, was named Optometrist of the Year by the World Council of Optometry.

In the minds of students and practitioners, though, he will forever be associated with a text that taught full scope optometry to many thousands of optometrists: Clinical Refraction, first published in 1949, became the profession’s biggest selling text.

A True Visionary

Dr. Borish’s legacy will include his goal to move optometry forward as a profession. He utilized his ability as a visionary as well as his incredible energy to ultimately accomplish this goal. Dr. Borish made a point of being ahead of the curve. Thirty-five years ago, he indicated that optometry would embrace computers and automated equipment—long before they were even available. He was one of the first pioneers in contact lenses: both spherical and notably presbyopic lens designs. And he may have been the first individual to recognize the value to optometric practice of utilizing technicians for testing purposes, allowing more time for treatment and patient consultation.

He also recognized early in his career the importance of establishing uniform standards and evaluation systems in optometric education and was among the individuals responsible for establishing the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry

Generous Friend and Supporter

The stories of all the individuals for whom Dr. Borish unselfishly dedicated his time and support to help launch their careers are too numerous to mention, but following are a few notable examples.

Dr. William (“Joe”) Benjamin, who ultimately assumed the editorship of the renamed Borish’s Clinical Refraction, relates: “It was my great fortune to have been assigned an office across the hall from the semi-retired Irv Borish at the University of Houston in 1984, the both of us falling in together as we had each recently relocated there. The assignment was made by my Dean, Bill Baldwin (a long-time close friend of Dr. Borish and author of the exceptional tribute text Borish). As I was a young faculty member, Irv had my back, and he afforded me opportunities.”

At IU, many prospered from his support and encouragement including Drs. Sarita Soni, Cliff Brooks, and myself. Dr. Brooks relates: “Irv was an established author and leader within the profession when I was just beginning as a faculty member at Indiana University. It was a tremendous privilege to have benefitted from his mentorship as we worked together on the book System for Ophthalmic Dispensing. Through our numerous interactions, I always found him both patient and insightful.”

Here’s my story. In 1983 I had a dream to publish a text on rigid gas permeable lenses. My proposal was rejected by every optometric publisher. That is, until I contacted Dr. Borish, and he did not hesitate to lend his name to the Table of Contents (and ultimately authored an excellent chapter). I resubmitted it to his publisher, it was promptly accepted, and my life changed dramatically.

Of course, no tribute to Dr. Irvin Borish would be complete without recognizing his lifelong dedication to the American Academy of Optometry and, most notably, to its philanthropic arm, the American Optometric Foundation (AOF). No one recognizes his impact more than AOF Development Director Dr. Mark Bullimore. “Dr. Borish was a guiding light for the Academy and its Foundation. He inspired us with his achievements. He counseled us with his wisdom and experience. He supported us with his longstanding philanthropy. Finally, he always had time to speak with students and encourage them in their chosen career.” Irv donated well over $100,000 to AOF. The Borish Ezell fellowship will be awarded for the sixth time in 2012.

In summarizing the enormous influence that this brilliant visionary had over the optometric profession, Dr. Brooks says it best: “We, as a profession, may never fully realize how much we benefitted from his presence, influence, and vision that extended over the many decades he was with us. He was truly extraordinary.” Whether it is through his writings, lectures, his many inventions, his pioneering efforts on behalf of contact lenses, or through all of the individuals who owe their career to him, he will always be best remembered as Dr. Irvin M. Borish, “Father of Modern Optometry.” CLS

In lieu of flowers, per the request of Dr. Borish and his family, memorial contributions may be made to: American Optometric Foundation, 6110 Executive Blvd., Suite 506, Rockville, Md. 20852; the Borish Center for Ophthalmic Research, Indiana University Foundation, P.O. Box 500, Bloomington, Ind. 47402; or Irvin M. Borish Chair in Optometry, University of Houston, College of Optometry, 505 J. Davis Armistead Building, Houston, Texas 77204.

Dr. Bennett is assistant dean for Student Services and Alumni Relations at the University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Optometry and is executive director of the GP Lens Institute. You can reach him at