Women of History: Dorothy Harrison Eustis

January 17, 2018

Dorothy Eustis poses with Parole and Nancy, two dogs trained to lead blind people (Sept. 7, 1933).
Copyright The Associated Press.

Dorothy Harrison Eustis (1886–1946) was a philanthropist, best remembered for founding the first school in the United States that trained seeing eye dogs for the blind.

When she and her first husband, Walter Abbott Wood, Jr., established an experimental dairy farm in New York State, she learned that selective breeding could improve dairy cattle milk output. She had long been fascinated by the loyalty and intelligence of her German Shepherd, Hans. What she learned on the farm, she applied later to develop dog breeds with exceptional intelligence and affectionate dispositions to serve the needs of humans.

With the death of her husband in 1915, she was left with their two young children. Six years later, she moved her family to Switzerland, where she established an experimental kennel.1 In 1923 she married George Eustis, and together they bred dogs for military and police work.

Eustis became a Christian Scientist in the 1920s, joining The Mother Church in 1930. In a later article, she described the influence of Christian Science on her life:

Instead of leading an up-and-down existence of work and play, carried on at high pressure with resultant periods of complete exhaustion, I have been supported through the spiritual facts of being as revealed in Christian Science in an extremely active and busy undertaking which for nine years has involved work and travel, practically without cessation. A false sense of responsibility is yielding to divine guidance; and each year brings greater freedom.2

The Eustises modeled much of their own training after a kennel in Potsdam, Germany, that was also pioneering how to train dogs to serve as guides for blind World War I veterans. The school impressed Dorothy, and in 1927 she wrote an article titled “The Seeing Eye” for the Saturday Evening Post.3

Morris S. Frank was a young American insurance salesman who was blind. He learned of the Eustises’ success in breeding dogs and arranged to get one of them to use as a guide for himself. His became the first dog trained to assist the blind in the United States.4 Frank and his dog, Buddy, became something of a sensation, frequently covered in the American press. In 1934 The Christian Science Monitor reported that Buddy had successfully helped Frank to travel several thousand miles around the United States.

Eustis founded The Seeing Eye, a school for service dogs that she eventually located in Morristown, New Jersey. She attributed its success to a focus on understanding the dog’s thinking. This was vital—service dogs were often in situations where they were not just responding to commands but had to think for themselves in order to determine the safest way out of a particular situation.5

In 1964 the Monitor reported that The Seeing Eye had contributed to the “freedom and independence” of some 3,000 blind people. “They have come from every state in the Union,” the report reflected, “from Canada, Puerto Rico and, on occasion, from several foreign countries. They have come from all stations in life, to be able to walk with heads high, and to seek their own fulfillment.”6

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  1. Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, eds., Notable American Women, 1607-1950 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), 585-86.
  2. Christian Science Sentinel, November 26, 1938, 254.
  3. “Dorothy Harrison Eustis,” National Women’s Hall of Fame, accessed December 20, 2017, https://www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/dorothy-harrison-eustis/.
  4. Notable American Women, 1607-1950, 586.
  5. Sadie A. Frank, “Buddy, ‘The Seeing Eye’ Dog Guide,” The Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 1934.
  6. “Purpose, People and Dogs,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 24, 1964.