(Investigator 156, 2014 May)


Dr. William Horatio Bates, M.D. (1860-1931), an ear, nose, and throat specialist, was one of the leading ophthalmologists of his day in New York City. His early medical record is impressive up until 1902, when he suddenly vanished. He was found by accident by a fellow occulist in 1910 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he had been practising. He was persuaded to return to New York, where he served as attending physician in Harlem Hospital until 1922. Disenchanted with conventional medicine, he began to question the use of glasses to correct vision problems.

In 1920, Dr. Bates self-published a book titled Cure of Imperfect Eyesight by Treatment Without Glasses, based on an analysis of the eyes of twenty thousand school children. Subsequent publications by other authors have essentially been restatements of Dr. Bates' views.


Dr. Bates concluded that vision defects (refractive errors) were caused because of weakness, or misuse of the six intrinsic eye muscles, which prevented them from focusing the lens correctly. The defect was not in the lens itself but in weak eye muscles caused by stress and strain which, once removed, enabled the eye muscles to focus the lens correctly. As a result of his research, Dr. Bates developed his theory of "Accommodation", a term for the focusing process which takes place within each eye when attention is shifted from one object to another at varying distances.

It is well known in eye anatomy that this adjustment involves an alteration in the shape of the lens. However, Dr. Bates disagreed claiming that, "the lens is not a factor in Accommodation, and that focusing is accomplished by an alteration in the entire length of the eyeball brought about by two muscles on the outside of the eye".


Central to the Bates' system is "central fixation" –- learning to see what is in the centre of vision, without staring. To achieve this, Dr. Bates devised a series of exercises:

"Palming." The patient covers both eyes with his hands and tries to think of "perfect black." When the patient is able to see a pure blackness, there is an immediate improvement of sight.

The "shift" and the "swing". This involves moving the eye back and forth so that one gets an illusion of an object "swinging" from side to side. The shorter the shift, the greater the benefit.

After mastering the art of shifting and swinging, the patient finally attains what Bates called the "universal swing".

Bates also recommended reading under adverse conditions — such as in dim light, riding in a vehicle, or in bright sunlight. He also claimed that the eyes can also be strengthened by looking directly at the sun for a few moments so that the beneficial rays may bathe the retina — a dangerous practice to say the least.


Dr. Bates was at odds with all contemporary optometrists who viewed him as an eccentric. Although a few eye disorders do respond to exercises prescribed by conventional eye doctors, these are confined to those which involve the exterior muscles such as crossed eyes, or walled eyes. Most eye defects are refractive errors due to the shape of the eye, lens, or cornea, and no amount of shifting or swinging will produce an organic change.

In 1926, Stories from the Clinic was published by Dr. Bates' assistant, Emily C. Lierman. It was a collection of articles taken from Bates' magazine called Better Eyesight. It represents the best evidence in print to show that the success of the Bates' method relies solely on faith.

With the Bates' method of Eye Vision Training as with all pseudoscientific health fads, the real danger lies in neglecting ailments which may require immediate medical attention before they lead to permanent eye damage and blindness.

Other "vision therapists" claim to strengthen eyesight though a series of exercises, coloured lights and lenses and "pinhole" glasses. However, there is no scientific evidence to support their claims.

Bates, William H. 1920. Cure of Imperfect Eyesight by Treatment Without Glasses. Central Fixation Publishing Co. New York.
Gardner, Martin. 1957. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Dover Publications Inc. New York.

Grow, Gerald. 1978. Improving Eyesight: The Bates Method. The Holistic Health Handbook.

Kastner, Mark, and Burroughs, Hugh. 1993. Alternative Healing. Halcyon Publishing, La Mesa, California.

MacFayden, Ralph J. 1948. See Without Glasses. Random Hs.

Pollack, Philip. 1956. The Truth about Eye Exercises. Chilton Co., Philadelphia.

From: Edwards, H. 1999 Alternative, Complementary, Holistic & Spiritual Healing, Australian Skeptics Inc.