Dr. Paul Owen: The First PHS Optometrist

Paul Owen grew up in Jacksonville, Florida in the mid-20th century. He attended Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, where he earned his Bachelor of Science (B.S.) and then his Doctorate in Optometry (O.D.). In 1966, Dr. Owen became the first optometrist in the Public Health Service commissioned Officer Corps. Prior to this, any necessary optometry care was provided by contracting physicians.

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Dr. Owen was stationed at the Public Health Service’s Indian Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona as part of the Division of Indian Health’s efforts to combat Trachoma – a contagious eye disease which disproportionately affected Native American children. Opportunities for optometrists in the Indian Health Service grew quickly, and within 30 years there were 86 Commissioned Officers practicing optometry in the Indian Health Service.

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Aside from a few photocopied news clippings that accompanied these images and a couple of cursory mentions in reports and histories of the Public Health Service, I have been unsuccessful in discovering any significant details of Dr. Owen’s life and experiences. As a minority physician treating minority patients during a truly tumultuous time in American history for both groups, perhaps it is not surprising that there appears to be very little information available on Dr. Owen.

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That does not make the dearth any less disappointing, however. His role was pioneering and his story undoubtedly fascinating. So, if anyone out there has or discovers any information about Dr. Owen, please feel free to share!


Sources consulted for this blog include “Indian Health Service: A Comprehensive Health Care Program for American Indians and Alaskan Natives” (1985), “The Silent War: History and Impact of the United States Public Health Service” (2010), and the “Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Regional and Field Letter” (1966).

Newspaper clippings associated with the photos  include articles from the “Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Regional and Field Letter” (1966), the “Papago Indian News” (1966), “Washington Report on the Medical Sciences” (1966), the “Fort Apache Scout” (1966), “The AMA News” (1966), and the “U.S. Medicine” (1967). These clippings were not published due to copyright concerns but are available for viewing in the Still Picture Research Room, College Park, MD.

7 thoughts on “Dr. Paul Owen: The First PHS Optometrist

  1. I’m a former staff member of the American Optometric Association. I’ve forwarded your National Archives post to several colleagues stlll involved in the AOA asking if they can provide you with any additional information about Dr.Owen. Hope it helps your research.

    1. Thank you!! Be it additional research or first-person accounts, community participation in the remembering and understanding of our history is invaluable. I am fascinated by Dr. Owen’s story and I hope others will find it interesting as well. I very much look forward to any further insights into his life and experiences!

  2. Your story has been forwarded to the AOA Press office by a past AOA President. He’s encouraging them to follow up on the story. You might hear from them.
    You might also contact the National Optometric Association in Charlotte, NC which was established in 1969 specifically for the interests of minority optometrists. Website is http://nationaloptometricassociation.com/.

  3. Fantastic story! I am the Executive Director for the Armed Forces Optometric Society which includes optometrists in PHS and IHS. I am very intrigued by Dr. Owen’s story. I have been in contact with an optometrist that did a presentation on Dr. Owen last year for the Optometric Historical Society and will be happy to pass on any information I garner.

    1. Thank you! I am delighted to hear that there is already work underway to uncover Dr. Owen’s story. I’m glad to contribute my little bit of knowledge here and look forward to any additional information gathered by others. Piecing together the puzzles of our past really is a treasure hunt through memory, and some stories are so scattered that a group effort is necessary to recover them.

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