Ophthalmology 1700-1900: Celebrating the Collection of Jerry F. Donin, M.D.

Drawing from rare books and artifacts in OHSU Historical Collections & Archives, this exhibit highlights key developments leading to the modernization of ophthalmology. Early works from the eighteenth century explore an emerging specialization, redeemed from the realm of quackery. The first half of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of clinical and educational centers dedicated to ophthalmology, as well as breakthroughs in the treatment of common eye diseases. In 1851, the introduction of the ophthalmoscope transformed the field, ushering in a new era of scientific study and clinical precision.

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Ophthalmology becomes a specialty

Gorter, Johannes de. Cirugia expurgada de Juan de Gorter...Madrid: Pedro Marin, 1780. History of Medicine Collection.

In Western medicine, ophthalmology emerged as a distinct specialty around the beginning of the eighteenth century. Previously, practitioners and scholars regarded the field as an extension of surgery or anatomy at best - or as quackery at worst. While non-specialists such as Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Johann Gottfried Zinn (1727-1759) made landmark contributions, others such as Pierre Brisseau (1631-1717), Antoine Maître-Jan (1650-1725) and Charles de Saint-Yves (1667-1731) became distinguished experts in the study of the eye. New technologies, particularly Leeuwenhoek's microscope, supported the close study of the eye that major progress required. Publications in the eighteenth century defined the boundaries of the specialty, advanced physiological understanding of the eye, and made breakthroughs in describing and treating common eye diseases.

Germany and Austria became the centers of European ophthalmology in the 19th century. In 1812, the University of Vienna created the first chair of ophthalmology, appointing Georg Joseph Beer (1763-1821), a successful clinician and teacher. Beer solidified Vienna's leadership in academic ophthalmology. He rejected dogmatic beliefs and encouraged direct observation of the eye, creating a foundation for scientific research. His students were among the most important ophthalmologists of the early 19th century. In turn, these students went on to mentor others, promoting excellence in ophthalmology across Europe in the following decades.

The Ophthalmoscope

Helmholtz, Hermann von. Treatise on Physiological Optics, 1924. Rochester, N.Y.: Optical Society of America, 1924-1925. History of Medicine Collection.

Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) is credited with the invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1851, though Charles Babbage had developed a similar instrument some years earlier. For the first time, practitioners could easily observe the fundus (interior surface) of the eye, greatly simplifying the detection of diseases and symptoms. Early ophthalmoscopists made their own innovations: The 1860s-1880s brought a variety of technical improvements to the instrument. A wealth of instructional texts, often lavishly illustrated, were published in the U.S. and Europe in the last half of the 19th century.

Perrin, Maurice. Perrin, M. Traité pratique d'ophthalmoscopie et d'optometrie. Paris: Masson, 1870-[1872]. History of Medicine Collection.

Ophthalmology and the book

Ophthalmology embraced new printing technologies and ingenious uses of the book. Color lithography brought new possibilities to medical illustration by making it economical to produce books with high-quality, full-color plates.  Eduard von Jaeger's Ophthalmoskopischer Hand-Atlas (Leipzig: Deuticke, 1894) was a noted example, enabling students far and wide to benefit from the famous ophthalmologist's research. The plates were based on Jaeger's own paintings, which he created over hours of sittings with his patients. In Traité pratique d'ophthalmoscopie et d'optometrie (Paris: Masson, 1870-[1872]), Maurice Perrin (1826-1889) offered more utility than simply educating the reader: One section of the book consists of a series of eye charts, ready to use for examinations.

Jaeger, Eduard. Ophthalmoskopischer Hand-atlas. Leipzig: Deuticke, 1894. History of Medicine Collection.
Perrin, M. Traité pratique d'ophthalmoscopie et d'optometrie. Paris: Masson, 1870-[1872]. History of Medicine Collection.


This exhibit celebrates Mrs. Jacqueline Donin's generous gift of rare books on ophthalmology to OHSU Historical Collections & Archives. With the exception of Helmholtz's Treatise on Physiological Optics, the books featured in this exhibit are all from this donation, which consists of over 100 18th-20th century titles collected by her late husband, Dr. Jerry F. Donin. An ophthalmologist and avid book collector, Dr. Donin built one of the finest ophthalmology collections in private hands. OHSU Library is honored to provide these books with a permanent home, where they can be shared with the OHSU community and the public.

We gratefully acknowledge Jacqueline Donin, her son Robert Donin, Jeff Weber, and Dr. Donald Blanchard for their support.

Text and selections by Maija Anderson, Director, Curatorial Services