Morris Frank lost the use of an eye in a childhood accident, losing his vision altogether when a boxing accident damaged the other when he was 16. Frank hired a boy to guide him around, but the young man was easily bored and sometimes wandered off leaving Frank to fend for himself.
German specialists had been working at this time, on the use of Alsatians (German Shepherds), to act as guide dogs for WWI veterans blinded by mustard gas. An American breeder living in Switzerland, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, wrote an article about the work in a 1927 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. When Frank’s father read him the article, he wrote to Eustis pleading with her to train a dog for himself. “Is what you say really true? If so, I want one of those dogs! And I am not alone. Thousands of blind like me abhor being dependent on others. Help me and I will help them. Train me and I will bring back my dog and show people here how a blind man can be absolutely on his own. We can then set up an instruction center in this country to give all those here who want it a chance at a new life.”
Dorothy Eustis called Frank in February 1928 and asked if he was willing to come to Switzerland. The response left little doubt: “Mrs. Eustis, to get my independence back, I’d go to hell”. She accepted the challenge and trained two dogs, leaving it to Frank to decide which was the more suitable. Morris came to Switzerland to work with the dogs, both female German Shepherds. He chose one named “Kiss” but, feeling that no 20-year-old man should have a dog named Kiss, he called her “Buddy”.
Man and dog stepped off the ship in 1928 to a throng of reporters. There were flash bulbs, shouted questions and the din of traffic and honking horns that can only be New York City. Buddy never wavered. At the end of that first day, Dorothy Eustis received a single word telegram: “Success”. Morris Frank was set on the path that would become his life’s mission: to get Seeing Eye Dogs accepted all over the country.
Frank and Eustis established the first guide dog training school in the US in Nashville, on January 29, 1929. Frank was true to his word, becoming a tireless advocate of public accessibility for the blind and their guide dogs. In 1928, he was routinely told that Buddy couldn’t ride in the passenger compartment with him. Seven years later, all railroads in the United States had adopted policies allowing guide dogs to remain with their owners while onboard. By 1956, every state in the Union had passed laws guaranteeing access to public spaces for blind people and their dogs.
Frank told a New York Times interviewer in 1936 that he had probably logged 50,000 miles with Buddy, by foot, train, subway, bus, and boat. He was constantly meeting with people, including two Presidents and over 300 ophthalmologists, demonstrating the life-changing qualities of owning a guide dog.
Buddy’s health was failing in the end, but the team had one more hurdle to cross. One more barrier to break. Frank wanted to fly in a commercial airplane with his guide dog. The pair did so on this day in 1938, flying from Chicago to Newark, Buddy curled up at Morris Frank’s feet. United Air Lines was the first to adopt the policy, granting “all Seeing Eye dogs the privilege of riding with their masters in the cabins of any of our regularly scheduled planes.”
Buddy was all business during the day, but, to the end of her life, she liked to end her work day with a roll on the floor with Mr. Frank. Buddy died seven days after that plane trip, but she had made her mark. By this time there were 250 seeing eye dogs working across the country, and their number was growing fast. Buddy’s replacement was also called Buddy, as was every seeing eye dog Frank would ever own, until he passed in 1980.
It’s estimated today that there are over 10,000 seeing eye dogs, currently working in the United States.