Skip to content

Kristin Hussey, Looking for the Victorian Eye in London’s Medical Museums

2016 May 23
by lucinda matthews-jones

Kristin Hussey (kristin.hussey@qmul.ac.uk) is a PhD researcher int he School of Geography at Queen Mary University of London. Her doctoral research focuses on the influence of the British Empire on the development of medical practice and culture in late nineteenth century London. 

“It has been designated “the queen of the senses,” “the index of the mind,” “the window of the soul;” nay, it has even been esteemed “in itself a soul;” and ” He who spake as never man spake” has declared that “the light of the body is the eye,” at which we cannot marvel when we contemplate the inestimable pleasures and advantages it confers upon mankind.”[1]

 

Figure 1. Preparation of the nerves within the orbit, 1836. Wellcome Library. London.

Figure 1. Preparation of the nerves within the orbit, 1836. Wellcome Library. London.

In the nineteenth century, to see and to be seen was of paramount importance, particularly for Victorian Londoners. With the Great Exhibition of 1851, vision became essential to Victorian commercial and social life, establishing the exhibitionary complex which moulded life in London from hospitals to shops, museums and even the street.[2] Accordingly, eye hospitals proliferated, as well as clinical research eye diseases, and a booming industry in sight assistance. Spectacles were particularly important to the middle and upper classes, as one commentator observed, ‘The enable us to see the faces of our friends in the same apartment or across a table, to enjoy the beautiful in nature or in art…’[3]. For the working classes, eyesight was a necessity for earning a living, and was often compromised by poor living conditions and industrial accidents.

My PhD research centres on the conversation between the British Empire and London as the imperial metropolis in terms of the development and experience of medical and surgical practice. In order to explore the interrelationship between London and its empire, sight and attitudes toward seeing, as well as ophthalmic surgical practice and techniques, are of particular interest. As my approach combines a focus on materiality and embodied experience, human remains and particularly specimens in medical museums, are typically one of the first sources I attempt to identify. As with all historic research, the contents of the archive are the result of political motivations and institutional priorities as well as chance. Yet, as I began my research, I discovered the perennial problem of what materials are saved versus destroyed seemed amplified in the context of my work with human remains. Despite the abundance of nineteenth century documents on sight and ocular health, I struggled to find any surviving Victorian eyes.

Figure 2. Pince-nez spectacles, late 19th century. Science Museum London, Wellcome Images.

Figure 2. Pince-nez spectacles, late 19th century. Science Museum London, Wellcome Images.

For a contemporary medical historian, there are a few major starting points for identifying historic medical specimens; The Gordon Museum at Guy’s Hospital; The Barts Pathology Museum; and the Museums of the Royal College of Surgeons. With the waning interest in gross pathology which accompanied the growth of histology and other microscopic and cellular pursuits in the twentieth century, many of the Victorian medical collections have long been in disuse. With the passing of new regulations and the establishment of the Human Tissue Authority in 2004, these specimens which had previously been uninteresting became inconvenient and costly for institutions to retain. As a result, many smaller hospital collections were destroyed, with some being salvaged by the above mentioned institution.

The Hunterian Museum, with its material drawn mainly in the eighteenth century, does have some human eyes within the collections of pioneering surgeon John Hunter. However, the majority of their ophthalmic collections are animal specimens collected in the early twentieth century. However, browsing through the current catalogue can be deceiving. The Museum once contained a significant collection of over a hundred human eyes, and even more sectioned slides, with notable donors including Hunter, Astley Cooper and Jonathan Hutchinson. While most of the eyes were from the London-based practices of these surgeons, IMS Surgeon-Major R.H. Elliot provided almost a quarter of the specimens as a result of his work in India. [4] Unfortunately, the entire collection was destroyed when the College was hit by an incendiary bomb in the Second World War.[5]

 

Figure 3. A drawer of late nineteenth century eye preparations by pioneering ophthalmologist Joseph Priestly Smith (1845-1933), previously held by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists and recently acquired by the Royal College of Surgeons. By kind permission of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Figure 3. A drawer of late nineteenth century eye preparations by pioneering ophthalmologist Joseph Priestly Smith (1845-1933), previously held by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists and recently acquired by the Royal College of Surgeons. By kind permission of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.

The Barts Pathology Museum did, until very recently, continue to hold its collection of eyes. However, these are currently in the process of being destroyed as their poor condition has rendered them useless to medical researcher.[6] The preservation of the subtle structure of the eye was a topic which Victorian physicians struggled with. Joseph Priestly Smith and Edward Treacher Collins of Moorfields pioneered the use of glycerine jelly for the mounting of eyes, however this material was found, unfortunately, to melt in the summer, and was particularly problematic for specimens being sent back from hot climates. The author of an article in the Transactions of the Ophthalmic Society suggested that ‘all the specimens [sent from abroad to England] would be spoilt as soon as the hot weather set in, unless they were kept in ice’ [7].  A mixture of formalin with the glycerine was suggested to improve the process. However, if this liquid level is not frequently attended to, the inner fats of the eye, which allow them to retain their shape, leak and denature. After a number of years in this condition, the eye is left a dark, brittle disc, which even a conservator cannot salvage.

The Gordon Museum at Guy’s Hospital is the largest medical museum in London and one of the largest pathological museums in the world, looking after over 8,000 specimens from as early as the seventeenth century. In recent years, the Gordon Museum has taken in a number of large collections from other museums and hospitals disposing of their human remains. Yet the Museum only contains a handful of eyes, mostly dating from the 1960s. As a result of my experience with Barts, my initial assumption was that Victorian eyes simply had not survived long enough for me to find. However, in the words of the Curator, ‘It’s one thing to have granddad’s liver but another to have his eyes’ [8]. Whether for cultural, conservation, or accidental reasons; very few Victorian eyes remain in London’s medical collections. However, contemporary records demonstrate that eyes were a core component of most nineteenth century medical collections, and eye surgery a key aspect of the Victorian hospital.

Figure 4. Surgery to correct strabismus (misalignment of the eyes), 1846. Wellcome Library, London.

Figure 4. Surgery to correct strabismus (misalignment of the eyes), 1846. Wellcome Library, London.

The comment of the Curator at the Gordon Museum suggests that the reason for the lack of Victorian eye specimens in our medical museums is not only due to chance, acts of war, or physical damage over time, but with our own cultural attitudes towards the eye. The old saying ‘eyes are the window to the soul’ has been taken very much to heart even in our twenty-first century lives. In a 2010 study, of the registered organ donors who chose to specify which parts could be donated, 55%, or 1.2 million people, did not want to donate their eyes[9]. The issue of consent is a challenging one for historians, as undoubtedly many of the eye specimens collected by Victorian hospitals came from patients who likely did not know or give permission for them to be retained. Alternatively, contemporary organ donors are considering the harvesting of their healthy eyes after death, where most of the Victorian museum specimens were diseased or damaged eyes, which had been enucleated (extracted) as a part of on-going treatment.

For a number of reasons very few Victorian eyes survive to this day. The delicacy of its structure and the skill and time required for its preservation has resulted in the decay and eventual destruction of most of the large ophthalmic collections created by nineteenth century hospitals and medical institutions. However, museum catalogues and patient records provide a valuable insight into the Victorian eye. As these records also contain considerable patient data as well as the minute details of the operations performed, they are also a unique lens onto the patient group and the development of operative techniques.


[1] Whalley, W. (1874). A Popular Description of the Human Eye, with remarks on the eyes of inferior animals. London: J&A Churchill, p.1

[2] Bennett, T. (1995) The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. Routledge: London and New York

[3] quoted in Otter (2008) p.39

[4] Royal College of Surgeons Archive. Elliott, RH (1917). Catalogue of Specimens Illustrating Results of Indian Operation of Couching for Cataract, RCS-MUS/7/17/3.

[5] Roman, F. (1994) “Couching for Cataract- the suttiah’s tale” Br. Jr. Opthalm. 78 (7), p.576

[6] Personal communication (email) – C. Valentine, Technical Curator, Barts Pathology Museum, 27.10.15.

[7] Devreaux Marshall, C. (1897) “On the mounting of macroscopic eye specimens”, Trans. Opth.Soc UK, XVII, p.312

[8] Personal communication- B. Edwards, Curator, Gordon Museum. 12.10.15.

[9] “Why do donors tick the opt-out box for eyes” BBC Magazine, April 13th, 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8615320.stm [Accessed 25/1/16].

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

Captcha loading...