Blindness in the 18th century

Post date: 
Friday, 18 August 2017
Photo of a portrait of a man with a scarf across one of his eyes

From Egyptian ophthalmia to cataract surgery, a research project about the history of people with disabilities in England has revealed the interesting history of blindness. The Volunteer Research and Archive group from Liverpool tells us more.

The History of Place project involves researching the stories of people with disabilities in England over the last 800 years. The project is particularly focused on the history of blind and partially sighted people. We visited the Medical Institution in Liverpool to take a look at its extensive collection and find out more about blindness.
 
The Medical Institution first opened in the 1770s, originally as a library where local medical men could share their expensive medical books and journals. The Institution, like the Royal School for the Blind, was displaced to make way for Lime Street Station and moved into a purpose-built venue on Mount Pleasant where it remains up to the present day. The tour, led by the Head Librarian, was very interesting.
 

Egyptian ophthalmia

Before the 19th century, medical specialisation in eye conditions was regarded as inferior to many other surgical fields. However, ophthalmology soon became one of the fastest growing specialities in Britain because of the epidemic of Egyptian ophthalmia, which hospitalised whole regiments of British and French troops during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign.
 

The condition was known as Egyptian ophthalmia because it was first described in troops stationed in Egypt. Most physicians believed the condition was caused by environmental factors, but a British physician, John Vetch, insisted that it was contagious and his suggestions for prevention and treatment were milestones in the history of ophthalmology (US National Library of Medicine).

This led to new interest in eye conditions and respect for the “oculists” who treated them, as it was imperative for the government to make sure their soldiers were kept as healthy as possible in order to continue fighting the French army. In addition, those affected while fighting overseas were candidates for financial support from the state, which further incentivised the government to find the cause of and treatment for this new widespread disease.
 

Blindness in Britain

In Britain at this time, the most common causes of sight loss were due to side effects from diseases such as smallpox, measles and whooping cough, as well as injury, glaucoma and cataracts.
 

While there were very few treatments available for permanent blindness caused by these conditions, there had been basic cataract surgery known as “couching” which was performed by barbers and monks. It was available for over 2,000 years, although it was very dangerous and rarely long lasting.

Although improved and more modern techniques has been developed by French and German physicians, such as the first cataract removal performed by Jacques Daviel in 1748, they were practiced by very few British surgeons until the latter half of the 19th century.
 

More about the History of Place

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, we are discovering the stories of people with disabilities in England by visiting eight historic sites across the country. The project has been made possible by a large number of dedicated volunteers, hunting out stories in archives.
 
The oldest location is Maison Dieu in Faversham, which is all that is left of a 12th-century monastery where the blind daughter of Andrew of Faversham was admitted as a nun. The most recent is a house in Ashfield that was commissioned by Maggie and Ken Davis in 1976 at the birth of the Independent Living Movement. We have also traced Edward Rushton's work to create the School for the Indigent Blind at the turn of the 19th century and researched its history up to the Second World War.
 
We have exhibitions at three major museums and an accessible digital game launching in October. We will also continue to add stories and timelines to our website for the next year. Do sign up to our newsletter or take a look at our events, or you can stay in touch by following us on twitter: @H_O_P
 

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NB: The image shows Edward Rushton with a scarf around one eye, whose campaigning led to the creation of the Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind in 1791, which continues to run today as the Royal School for the Blind. It was taken by the Liverpool research group in the collection of the Royal School for the Blind.

 

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