The Mysterious Disappearance—and Strange Reappearance—of Dr. William Horatio Bates

Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Portrait of Bates: Strengthening the Eyes, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Portrait of Bates: Strengthening the Eyes, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Just a few hours before he disappeared on August 30, 1902, Dr. William Horatio Bates, a wealthy and influential ophthalmologist in New York City, wrote a hurried letter. It was delivered to his wife, Aida Seaman Bates, who was out of town visiting her mother:

My Dear Wife:

I am called out of town to some major operations. I go with Dr. Forche, an old student … to do a mastoid, some cataracts, and other operations. He promises me a bonanza! Too bad to miss the Horse Show, but I am glad to get so much money for us all. I am in such a flurry! Do not worry. I will write details later.

Yours lovingly,

Willie

It was a curious note. Bates was already a wealthy man, so why the excitement about the money? And why all the hustle to leave? More curious still, after sending that letter, the doctor vanished—he didn't come home, and he didn't write to say where he'd gone.

When he failed to resurface after several days, Mrs. Bates began a frantic search, inquiring with family friends across the United States and Europe. Her husband was a prominent Mason, so she enlisted the support of the local Masonic society, which circulated his picture around the world. Eventually, a letter arrived from Britain, reporting that a man fitting the doctor’s description was found working as a medical assistant at the Charing Cross hospital in London after having first been admitted there as a patient. Friends who saw him reported that Bates was “haggard, thin, and his eyes were deeply sunken.” Bates later said he had even starved at various points in the previous six weeks, even though he had left behind a bank account of such size that he could have lived in luxury in London for years.

Mrs. Bates boarded the next ship for England, but the happy reunion she imagined never materialized. Her husband showed no recollection of his previous life—he did not even recognize his own wife. “I don’t know why you bother, madam,” he reportedly told her. “We are strangers.”

The doctor was reluctantly persuaded to join Mrs. Bates at the Savoy Hotel for a period of rest and recovery. There, he dimly recalled being called away from New York to board a ship and perform an operation on someone with a brain abscess.

Confused but relieved, Mrs. Bates planned to stay in London for as much time as necessary for her husband to recover from his ordeal, and for some further memories of his previous life to surface again. Her hopes, however, were dashed when Dr. Bates abruptly walked out of the Savoy two days after taking up residence there, disappearing once more into the London crowd. Mrs. Bates never saw her husband again.

STARTING ANEW

Bates was at the height of his career when he disappeared in 1902. In his early forties, he was handsome, well-off, respected, and often consulted by other physicians in unusual cases. He had degrees from Cornell and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and had been an attending physician at the Bellevue Hospital and the New York Eye Infirmary. He’d taught ophthalmology for five years at the New York Postgraduate Medical School and Hospital.

In short, it wasn’t the resume of someone you’d expect to simply vanish.

After he walked out of the Savoy Hotel that autumn day, his wife spent years tirelessly searching for him up and down Europe and the East Coast of America. She died, reportedly embracing a portrait of her husband, in 1907.

Eye exercises from Strengthening the Eyes
Strengthening the Eyes, Google Books // Public Domain

When Dr. Bates did finally reappear, it was in an unlikely place: Grand Forks, North Dakota.

In 1910, Dr. J. E. Kelly, a good friend of Dr. Bates from his New York days, happened to be passing through Grand Forks, then a town of 12,000 people. There, under circumstances lost to history, Kelly recognized his old friend, who had set up a small ophthalmology practice for himself in the town at some point after disappearing eight years earlier. Eventually Dr. Kelly persuaded Bates to return with him to New York, despite Bates’s complete lack of memories about his previous life there.

The two ophthalmologists went into practice together. “In the window of the house at 117 West 83rd Street hang two neat, white-lettered signs, the one reading Dr. J. E. Kelly, the other Dr. W. H. Bates,” wrote The New York Herald shortly after Bates returned to the city. “Here, living quietly with his old friend, and gradually building up a practice as he did years ago, Dr. Bates, now 51 years old, is starting his career anew.”

Bates never recovered his memories of his previous life in New York City. Reporters only ever managed to piece together a loose collection of stories, hinting at a ghostly existence wandering around Europe as an itinerant doctor before settling into life on the Great Plains of North Dakota.

“It was as if he had a chunk of his mind removed, like a slice of watermelon chopped away and eaten by an invisible monster,” wrote one associate.

Bates went on to serve as an attending physician at the Harlem Hospital and eventually remarried. To outside observers, his life had resumed a rhythm of normalcy, with one major exception: In his chosen field of ophthalmology, where he’d been viewed for years as a luminary, Bates abruptly stepped off the deep end.

THE ART OF SEEING

In 1917, Bates debuted a new and unusual theory of eye care. “The Bates System of Eye Exercises” was offered for the first time in the magazine Physical Culture, run by notorious health quack and shameless self-promoter Bernarr Macfadden. Bates and Macfadden soon had an unexpected hit on their hands; magazine subscriptions skyrocketed.

Three years later, Bates published, at his own expense, a book of these theories entitled Cure of Imperfect Eyesight by Treatment Without Glasses. The work is a highly bizarre compendium of misinformation and exaggeration, heavily illustrated with unusual photographs. Bates’s methods to cure imperfect eyesight relied upon a variety of concepts that flew directly in the face of his several decades of ophthalmology practice. He taught that vision problems were almost exclusively caused by eyestrain and nervous tension, rather than problems with the shape of the eyeball or formation of the lens. Vision issues could theoretically be reduced in their severity, or even cured, by performing a series of eye exercises and learning how to completely relax the mind.

Bates’s followers—and there would be many—were soon busy swinging their eyes from object to object, palming their eyeballs, attempting to visualize “pure black” as a method of mental relaxation, and, most controversially, exposing their eyes to direct sunlight, all in the name of improving their vision.

In 1929, Bates and his methods drew the ire of the Federal Trade Commission, who issued a complaint against him for making false and misleading claims. Nevertheless, his methods continued to grow in popularity, with people seduced by the promise of improving their eyesight without resorting to corrective measures. Many followers were convinced of the efficacy of the Bates method by experiencing abrupt, fleeting moments of clear vision while practicing the exercises. Some were even able to throw away their eyeglasses.

Perhaps the most famous follower of the Bates Method was Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, who had been plagued by vision problems much of his life. Huxley even wrote a book about his eye experiments, dubbed The Art of Seeing, which was published in 1942 and widely read and debated.

Explanations for the improvements that some devotees experienced vary. Some diseases of the eye, such as certain forms of astigmatism, can at times improve on their own, ophthalmologists say. Reduced mental strain can sometimes improve the experience of one's eyesight, even while defects remain. Plus, the moisture built up by repeated exercises of the eye can occasionally produce a temporary contact-lens-like effect.

AMNESIA—OR DISAPPEARING ACT?

To this day, no one has arrived at a definitive theory of what exactly happened to Bates during his disappearances. His obituary in The New York Times refers to the episodes as a “strange form of aphasia,” although that condition is usually limited to affecting the ability to communicate. More commonly, the missing years in his life are described as episodes of amnesia, but that diagnosis may not fit either. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Though forgetting your identity is a common plot device in movies and television, that's not generally the case in real-life amnesia. Instead, people with amnesia—also called amnestic syndrome—usually know who they are. But, they may have trouble learning new information and forming new memories.”

Another possible diagnosis is dissociative fugue, in which a person loses important autobiographical information and embarks upon seemingly aimless wandering. An extremely rare condition, according to Psychology Today, it occurs only in 0.2 percent of the population, but Bates seems to have exhibited the symptoms.

Of course, another tantalizing possibility is that Bates just made the whole thing up. Maybe he was tired of his New York life, or tired of his marriage, or was secretly in debt, and decided to just walk away, claiming memory loss as a reason when he was eventually caught.

Whatever the truth of the case, it went to the grave with the doctor when he died in 1931. His dubious legacy in the underworld of ophthalmology, however, remains alive and well. Despite being routinely condemned on numerous grounds by ophthalmologists, the internet is still abuzz with Bates Method enthusiasts, who have carried his torch well into the 21st century.

Additional Sources: Among the Missing; Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science; Better Eyesight: The Complete Magazines of William H. Bates

In 1959, the U.S. Postal Service Attempted to Deliver Mail via Missile

Smithsonian National Postal Museum
Smithsonian National Postal Museum

In the late 1950s, the future was up in the air. The space race was just getting started, and the U.S. military was working on missiles that could reach around the world—and even to the Moon. The U.S. government didn’t just see new flight capabilities as military priorities, though. It also thought they could be used to carry mail, as we recently learned from Today I Found Out. Yes, the Postal Service once tried sending letters by missile mail.

In June 1959, the U.S. Navy sent 3000 letters on a guided missile toward a naval auxiliary air station in Mayport, Florida. Launched from the USS Barbero, a submarine that was stationed 100 miles off the U.S. coast in international waters, the 36-foot Regulus I missile made it to Mayport in 22 minutes. Held in two metal containers in what was supposed to be the missile’s warhead chamber, the letters on board were copies of a letter from Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield to then-President Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, individual representatives of Congress, members of the Supreme Court, the crew of the Barbero, and more. The letters carried regular mail stamps—“not even air mail,” as the AP story that day noted.

The Postal Service heralded it as the first successful delivery of mail by missile. (There had been previous attempts, like a thwarted 1936 delivery on a rocket-powered plane across a lake between New York and New Jersey [PDF]. Despite several attempts, that one never fully made a successful delivery.) But “delivery” was a bit of an overstatement: Most of those letters had to be sent by regular mail service at a post office in nearby Jacksonville, since the 3000 recipients weren’t sitting around at a naval base in Florida waiting for their letter.

An envelope that reads 'First Official Missile Mail'
Smithsonian National Postal Museum

“Now that we know we can do it,” Summerfield told the press, “we plan a series of discussions to determine the practical extent to which the method can be used and under what conditions.” It never did become practical, as we now know. Summerfield’s successor, J. Edward Day, killed the program, pointing out that the letters sent from the USS Barbero ended up taking some eight days to reach their intended recipients. Not exactly rocket speed.

Even if missile mail wasn't a financially or logistically feasible way to send the mail on a regular basis, the test likely proved worthwhile just for the bragging rights. “Ostensibly an experiment in communication transportation,” Nancy A. Pope writes on the National Postal Museum’s blog, “the Regulus’ mail flight sent a subtle signal that in the midst of the Cold War, the U.S. military was capable of such accuracy in missile flight that it could be considered for use by the post office.”

And it wasn’t so strange that the USPS was trying out newfangled technology in its quest to get mail across the country as fast as possible. As the rail industry declined, it was becoming more expensive and less efficient to send mail by train. Throughout the early 20th century, the U.S. Postal Service looked into a number of alternatives, including post office buses that would travel from town to town sorting mail along the way, intercity helicopter mail, and other ideas that harnessed ways of delivering mail that would have been unthinkable a few decades before. But in the end, improving roads to make it easier to send trucks around the country proved a better financial plan than using guided military missiles.

[h/t Today I Found Out]

8 Cures That Did More Harm Than Good

iStock.com/powerofforever
iStock.com/powerofforever

No one likes to be sick or suffering. But in the course of trying to find new cures for medical problems, or perceived medical problems, we’ve stumbled more than a few times. Most of the time, treatments simply didn't work and were no more harmful than what they were meant to “cure.” Sometimes, though, the medicine was even worse than the condition itself.

1. RAW MEAT AND HOG FAT FOR A RABIES BITE

To his credit, Pliny the Elder discounted many purely magical folk cures in his Natural Histories (not to mention writing entire chapters against the eating of infant brains). He was also a proponent of several treatments which we now know to have some merit, such as aloe vera to dress burns.

Still, his advice was often more questionable than credible. His cures for bites from a mad (rabid) human or dog were the same—raw veal or she-goat dung placed over the wound for no less than four days, while the patient takes only lime and hog’s fat internally. If this doesn’t sound so bad, imagine eating nothing but antacids and lard, while having an open wound get more and more infected. If you weren’t dead by the time the rabies actually manifested, you probably wished you were.

2. SMACKING A BIBLE ON A GANGLION CYST

Hit them with a book. A heavy book. The use of Bibles to cure ganglion cysts provided the colloquial terms for this benign lump on the hand or wrist: Bible cysts, Gideon’s disease, or Bible bumps.

Really, you shouldn’t do this, however. While in some circumstances the lump may disappear or be reabsorbed after being thwacked, this method of treatment is second only to puncturing them in an unsterile environment when it comes to causing recurrence and complications. Most ganglion cysts cause no complications on their own, and many will disappear after a few months if left alone [PDF].

3. WHIPPING FOR "DRAPETOMANIA" OR "DYSAETHESIA AETHIOPICA"

Drapetomania and dysaethesia aethiopica were two different but related “conditions” that one Samuel Cartwright saw as prevalent among slaves during the mid-19th century. Drapetomania supposedly caused an “insanity” that drove slaves to run away, while dysaethesia aethiopica caused “partial numbness of the skin,” and “great hebetude” (mental dullness and lethargy).

To cure either condition, you needed only to whip the patient. The concept caught on in the South, as it lent an air of science and self-justification to slave owners—Cartwright’s work suggested that the only moral thing to do was to keep slaves in their place for their own good, lest they become afflicted with one of these conditions (he noted how “common” dysaethesia aethiopica was among “Free Negros”). Of course, this quackery was not hard to spot by his contemporaries outside of the South. Frederick Douglass once sarcastically remarked that, since white indentured servants run away, too, “drapetomania” was probably a European condition that had been introduced to Africans by white slave traders.

4. SMOKING FOR ASTHMA

Smoke a cigarette! Not a tobacco cigarette (though those were advertised as “healthy” for decades), but an herbal remedy. While a few components of these cigarettes may have caused a degree of temporary relief for those with bronchitis or asthma, the long-term effects of smoking anything are known to be detrimental, especially to those whose lungs are already diseased. 

Long-term effects aside, many of the “asthma cigarettes” contained ingredients that were immediately and seriously harmful. Several brands boasted adding arsenic to their papers. Two of the staple ingredients for many companies were stramonium, an extract from the deadly Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) plant, and belladonna, extracted from deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).

5. HEROIN TO CURE A MORPHINE HABIT

“Morphinism,” or morphine addiction, was perceived to be such a pervasive habit, and seen as such a scourge in polite society, that quack cures and treatments were easy to convince people to try, and rarely got reported or noticed when they didn’t work.

While unlabeled patent medicines in the U.S. were forced to reveal their ingredients after the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, many dangerous concoctions were still sold and advertised falsely. The tale of Bayer’s Heroin being used to “cure” morphine addiction (with a much more addictive and refined opiate) is pretty well-known, but it never caught on as much as Habitina (also known as Morphina-Cura) did. Habitina became known for its paid testimonials and dodgy advertising claims (“Non-Addictive! Cures the morphine habit!”), and was one of the most significant examples of the shortcomings of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Habitina not only didn't give the patient a cure, it combined the worst sides of the pharmaceutical industry into one bottle—its main ingredients were morphine sulfate (does it count as a cure if you call the same drug by a different name?), heroin, and caffeine.

6. RADIUM TO PREVENT INSANITY AND OLD AGE

“The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off” has to be one of the best Wall Street Journal headlines of all time. The “radium water” in question was called Radithor, and the jaw in question belonged to one Eben Byers: industrialist, socialite, and amateur golf champion.

Radium and radiation were all the rage around the turn of the 20th century. People who went to natural hot springs seemed “invigorated and renewed,” and scientists noted that many of these natural springs were high in naturally-occurring radon. The radon seemed to be to water what oxygen was to air; without it, water was “dead.” Looking to profit off of this discovery, companies first bottled water directly from the springs, and later produced “invigorating” crocks (containing internal radon discs or coatings) to irradiate water. Just fill the crock before you go to sleep, and have healthy, stimulating water all day long!

Unfortunately for those who consumed the radon, the radiation in the water did the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Eben Byers bought into the claims, and drank three bottles of Radithor a day, beginning in 1930. In 1932, his teeth began to fall out, holes began to appear in his jaw, and he became generally unwell. He was dying of aggressive cancer brought on by the radon (not radiation poisoning, as is commonly believed, but still directly attributable to the Radithor). He died at age 51 and was buried in a lead-lined coffin. His was one of the cases used to substantially increase the FDA’s ability to regulate medical claims, when the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act passed.

7. GOAT GLANDS TO CURE IMPOTENCE

Some people will do anything to get their “potency” back, and there are plenty of people out there who are willing to take advantage of that. John R. Brinkley was one of the myriad snake-oil salesmen at the turn of the century, but a medical degree bought from a diploma mill led the now-“Dr.” Brinkley to pursue grander matters.

Early on in Brinkley’s career, Bill Stittsworth, a farmer with “no lead in his pencil, no powder in his pistol” consulted him. The story goes that Brinkley jokingly remarked that it was too bad the farmer didn’t have the glands of the frisky billy goats outside, but Stittsworth, taking Brinkley seriously, said “Doctor, I want you to transplant [the goat glands] into me.” The doctor did as much, and nine months later, Bill Stittsworth’s wife reportedly bore a son, appropriately named “Billy.”

Seeing the potential to profit from this venture, John Brinkley set up a major advertising campaign centered on “Billy,” and “goat-gland transplantation” took off. Over 16,000 men had their scrotums cut open and tissue plugs from the goat testicles inserted. In the best-case scenario, the men’s bodies simply broke down the goat tissues and healed up, but many patients weren’t so lucky.

The fact that Brinkley was a mediocre medical man at best led to dozens of deaths that were directly attributable to his operation, but hundreds more are believed to have been killed by infection, gangrene, or surgical mishaps. Those deaths also helped lead to the revocation of Brinkley’s license to practice medicine in Kansas in 1930. Unfortunately for the easily swayed, he remained in the goat-gland business for another decade in Texas.

8. THALIDOMIDE TO CURE MORNING SICKNESS AND SLEEPLESSNESS

The 1950s were an era of innovation, new discoveries, and excitement about the potential that science had to improve our lives. Drug companies were thriving on this outlook, and developing cures for even the smallest of ailments. Sleeplessness was a major problem, according to contemporary doctors, but the only reliable sedatives were barbiturates, which had a host of known addiction problems and side effects.

In 1957, the German drug company Grunenthal developed a non-barbiturate, non-habit-forming sleep aid called Thalidomide. It was sold over the counter, and touted as “safe for everyone.” Grunenthal’s adverts boasted that they could not find a dose high enough to kill a rat. By 1960, its sales in Europe and the Commonwealth countries nearly matched that of aspirin. Down in Australia, Dr. William McBride noticed that women who took the drug were often alleviated of their morning sickness, and sales boomed even higher.

It was too good to be true. By 1961, babies were beginning to be born to mothers who had taken Thalidomide in early pregnancy. Many of them had shortened or absent “flipper” limbs. Dr. McBride realized his mistake, and did everything he could to retract his endorsements of the drug, but it was too late for over 12,000 infants. By 1961, the drug was pulled off the market, but Grunenthal offered no recompense or statement regarding its inadequate testing and irresponsible promotion.

Interestingly, the story of Thalidomide had a rather different turn in the United States. Though it technically passed the requirements of the FDA testing authority at the time, FDA inspector Frances Kelsey would not approve its distribution. Ms. Kelsey felt the company provided insufficient data on the efficacy and safety of the drug on its applications, and despite pressure from pharmaceutical companies and other FDA supervisors, she refused to budge on the issue. President John F. Kennedy eventually heralded her as a heroine, after the scandal of the “Thalidomide babies” broke overseas.

This incident further strengthened the testing requirements of the FDA, and greatly increased the oversight and regulation of equivalent organizations in other countries. Interestingly, Thalidomide is once again being used as a drug, albeit with extreme restrictions on who can take it. It’s a chemotherapeutic agent that has significant benefits for multiple myeloma patients, and it has also been used in the treatment of Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Patients on the drug must have pregnancy tests and use reliable contraception if they are sexually active, and must not become pregnant within 4 weeks of coming off the drug.

This story first ran in 2013.

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