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