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.

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

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

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- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

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- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

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- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

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AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Nintendo

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- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

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Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

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Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

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Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

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Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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9 Things Invented By Accident

These sugary summer treats were an accidental invention.
These sugary summer treats were an accidental invention.
Daniel Öberg, Unsplash

Not every great invention was created according to plan. Some, in fact, were the result of a happy accident. In November 2020, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca announced that the COVID-19 vaccine it had developed in partnership with Oxford University was 90 percent effective when administered in a dosing regimen they had discovered thanks to some “serendipity.” This wasn't the only unintentional discovery in history, of course. From penicillin to artificial sweeteners, all nine of the everyday items below were invented entirely by accident.

1. Penicillin

On September 28, 1928, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered that a petri dish of staphylococcus bacteria that had been inadvertently left out on the windowsill of his London laboratory had become contaminated by a greenish-colored mold—and encircling the mold was a halo of inhibited bacterial growth. After taking a sample and developing a culture, Fleming discovered that the mold was a member of the Penicillium genus, and the rest, as they say, is history.

2. Corn Flakes

The two Kellogg brothers—Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother (and former broom salesman) Will Keith Kellogg—worked at Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, where John was physician-in-chief. Both were strict Seventh-day Adventists, who used their work at the sanitarium to promote the austere dietary and moralist principles of their religion (including strict vegetarianism and a lifelong restraint from excessive sex and alcohol) and to carry out research into nutrition, and the impact of diet on their patients. It was during one of these experiments in 1894 that, while in the process of making dough from boiled wheat, one of the Kelloggs left the mash to dry for too long and when it came time to be rolled out, it splintered into dozens of individual flakes. Curious as to what these flakes tasted like, he baked them in the oven—and in the process, produced a cereal called Granose. Some later tinkering switched out the wheat for corn, and gave us corn flakes.

3. Teflon

Polytetrafluoroethylene—better known as PTFE, or Teflon—was invented by accident at a DuPont laboratory in New Jersey in 1938. Roy Plunkett, an Ohio-born chemist, was attempting to make a new CFC refrigerant when he noticed that a canister of tetrafluoroethylene, despite appearing to be empty, weighed as much as if it were full. Cutting the canister open with a saw, Plunkett found that the gas had reacted with the iron in the canister’s shell and had coated its insides with polymerized polytetrafluoroethylene—a waxy, water-repellent, non-stick substance. Du Pont soon saw the potential of Plunkett’s discovery and began mass producing PTFE, but it wasn’t until 1954, when the wife of French engineer Marc Grégoire asked her husband to use the same substance to coat her cookware to stop food sticking to her pans, that the true usefulness of Plunkett’s discovery was finally realized.

4. Slinky

In 1943, naval engineer Richard T. James was working at a shipyard in Philadelphia when he accidentally knocked a spring (that he had been trying to modify into a stabilizer for sensitive maritime equipment) from a high shelf. To his surprise, the spring neatly uncoiled itself and stepped its way down from the shelf and onto a pile of books, and from there onto a tabletop, and then onto the floor. After two years of development, the first batch of 400 “Slinky” toys sold out in just 90 minutes when they were demonstrated in the toy department of a local Gimbels store in 1945.

5. Silly Putty

At the height of World War II, rubber was rationed across the United States after Japan invaded a number of rubber-producing countries across southeast Asia and hampered production. The race was on to find a suitable replacement—a synthetic rubber that could be produced inside the U.S. without the need of overseas imports, which eventually led to the entirely unexpected invention of Silly Putty. There are at least two rival claims to the invention of Silly Putty (chiefly from chemist Earl L. Warrick and Scottish-born engineer James Wright), both of whom found that mixing boric acid with silicone oil produced a stretchy, bouncy rubber-like substance that also had the unusual ability of leaching newspaper print from a page (an ability that changing technology has now eliminated).

6. Post-It Notes

Pexels, Pixabay

In 1968, a 3M chemist named Dr. Spencer Silver was attempting to create a super-strong adhesive when instead he accidentally invented a super-weak adhesive, which could be used to only temporarily stick things together. The seemingly limited application of Silver’s product meant that it sat unused at 3M (then technically known as Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing) for another five years, until, in 1973, a colleague named Art Fry attended one of Silver’s seminars and struck upon the idea that his impermanent glue could be used to stick bookmarks into the pages of his hymnbook. It took another few years for 3M to be convinced both of Fry and Silver’s idea and of the salability of their product, but eventually they came up with a unique design that worked perfectly: a thin film of Spencer’s adhesive was applied along just one edge of a piece of paper. After a failed test-market push in 1977 as Press ’N Peel, the product went national as the Post-It note in 1980.

7. Saccharin

In 1878 or '79 (sources differ), Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist studying the properties of oxidized coal tar at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, discoveredwhile eating his meal one evening that food he picked up with this fingers tasted sweeter than normal. He traced the sweetening effect back to the chemical he had been working with that day (Ortho-sulfobenzoic Acid Imide, no less) and, noting its potential salability, quickly set up a business mass producing his sweetener under the name Saccharin. Although quickly popular (and equally quickly controversial), it would take the sugar shortages of two World Wars to make the discovery truly universal.

8. Popsicles

The first popsicle was reportedly invented by 11-year-old Frank Epperson in 1905, when he accidentally left a container of powdered soda and water, with its mixing stick still inside, on his porch overnight. One unexpectedly cold night later, and the popsicle—which Epperson originally marketed 20 years later as an Epsicle—was born.

9. Safety glass

Safety glass—or rather, laminated glass—was accidentally discovered by the French chemist Édouard Bénédictus when he knocked a glass beaker from a high shelf in his laboratory and found, to his surprise, that it shattered but did not break. His assistant informed him that the beaker had contained cellulose nitrate, a type of clear natural plastic, that had left a film on the inside of the glass. He filed a patent for his discovery in 1909, and it has been in production (albeit in various different forms) ever since.