Buying a pair of glasses is something that has become quite common, and most times can even be done over the internet. Beyond a routine checkup, more serious ocular issues may suggest a trip to the local ophthalmologist, but even that is often quite convenient due to technology and medical advances. Typically you can be diagnosed and treated within a few visits. These simple luxuries are available to us because of the extraordinary research, practices, and innovations of a German physician, George Bartisch.
Born in 1535 and growing up in a poor lower class family, Bartisch was not expected to reach the level of knowledge and expertise that he did. He longed to learn and know more, especially in the area of medicine. Because his family could not afford to send him to a formal school to satisfy his passion, he found an outlet that would suffice, and even grow, his innate knowledge about the human body, particularly the eye. He became an apprentice for a barber surgeon in Dresden at the age of 13. This was followed by two additional apprenticeships to an oculist and a lithotomist. Through these apprenticeships, he was able to become a successful wound surgeon, lithotomist, oculist, and teacher of surgical anatomy.
Being extremely influenced by the culture around him, Bartisch brought his knowledge of quirky superstitions, magic, astrology, and witchcraft into his research of the eye. Believing there were certain stellar constellations that were favorable for the eye was one of his assumptions. He accredited many malformations and diseases of the eye to such things as devils, spells, hexes, and curses, attributing human suffering and pain to punishment for sins by the devil. He could tie any disease which caused pain back to things he believed were sins. For example, his etiology for presbyopia was excessive use of alcohol. He took an interest in hot and cold witchcraft, treating patients according to which one he believed they were suffering from. It is improbable, however, that you would see any of these methods in practice today.
The majority of his knowledge was acquired from one of his 3 teachers, Abraham Meyscheider being one that he mentions specifically. After he had cultivated his abilities during his apprenticeships, he became an itinerant surgeon for the regions of Saxony, Selisia, and Bohemia. Bartisch became so well-known and respected he was appointed court oculist for Duke Augustus I of Saxony and settled in Dresden. Though he was an advocate for improving ocular health and vision, he was a huge adversary of spectacles and eye glasses. Bartisch believed that it was impossible and almost insulting to try and improve such an intricate organ’s function by sliding a piece of magnifying glass in front of it. In his theories glasses proved to weaken the patient’s vision. His treatments always stemmed from a more organic viewpoint.
George Bartisch, who is labeled the father of ophthalmology, left a huge footprint on this field by writing Ophthalmodouleia, an opthalmologic text-book. It was the first German book on ocular disease and surgery and included 92 exhaustive wood cuts. Many of these diagrams and illustrations were layered to act as flaps that could be lifted to emulate dissection, illustrating a variety of ocular diseases, surgery methodology, and instruments. Some of these you can find recreated in posters, paintings, and other reference books of the field.
Published in 1583, Ophthalmodouleia is overwhelming with ocular knowledge. Starting from the most basic concepts of head and face, it then travels to in depth illustration of eye anatomy. Bartisch demonstrates his breadth of knowledge as he addresses more complex topics such as strabismus, cataracts, external disease, and trauma, including his theories on diagnosing and treating cataracts by color. The intensive explanation of each disease is followed by the discussion of herbal remedies and prescriptions, which were popular in that time, and surgery options that easily make this book the Web MD of the ocular world for its time period.
It is an honor to have an original first edition of the actual book Ophthalmodouleia here in our P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library. The large elegant script and illustrious drawings can penetrate any language barrier and captivate attention in appreciation of the beauty of this work. Though the original copy is printed in 16th century German dialect, the field of ophthalmology owes great appreciation to J.P. Waynebrough for publishing Donald L. Blanchard’s English translation in 1996 as part of the History of Ophthalmology series. The Nixon Library also owns this translation.
Photographs of our copy of Ophthalmodouleia:
For more information on the Nixon Library or to set up an appointment to visit the library, contact Anne Comeaux, email@example.com or 210-567-2428 or Mellisa DeThorne, firstname.lastname@example.org or 210-567-2470.
Come take a look,
Tressica Thomas B.S., SLP-A
DEHS Student- School of Medicine
Blanchard, Donalld. “Superstitions of George Bartisch.” Science Direct. Survey of Opthalmalogy, 1 Jan. 2005. Web. 13 Jan. 2015. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0039625705000871
“Georg Bartisch.” Whonamedit -. Ole Daniel Enerson. Web. 13 Jan. 2015.
Mannis, Mark. “George Bartisch.” George Bartisch. American Journal of Ophthalmology. Web. 13 Jan. 2015. http://www.history-ophthalmology.com/BartischREVIEW.html
Portrait of George Bartisch courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Bartisch