A Selected History of Retinal Illustrations, 1851–1900 and Beyond

Exhibit catalog for "A Selected History of Retinal Illustrations, 1851–1900 and Beyond"

About this exhibit

Francone, Clarice Ashworth. Choroidal detachment, no date. Kenneth C. Swan papers.
Francone, Clarice Ashworth. Choroidal detachment, no date. Kenneth C. Swan papers [2007-011], Historical Collections & Archives, OHSU Library.

This exhibit traces the developments in retinal illustration throughout the history of ophthalmology, from the first retinal atlases up to twentieth century techniques.

Until Helmholtz’s discovery of the ophthalmoscope in 1851, the retina could not be visualized. Essentially all causes of loss of vision with a normal external exam were termed “Gutta Serena,” or blindness due to some obscure posterior cause. Most of these patients had diseases of the retina, which is the nerve layer in the back of the eye that receives external images and relays them to the brain for interpretation.

Suddenly, with the ophthalmoscope the retinal reasons for loss of vision could be identified and ultimately treated. Ophthalmologists wanted to share their discoveries, so they painted what they saw or hired professional artists. Given the novelty of this momentous new opening in medical understanding, sometimes what was seen was not understood fully, or was not painted with the correct emphasis on the actual pathology.

The first ophthalmoscope was a simple mirror. The meager light from a flickering flame or sooty lantern chimney led to indistinct viewing. The refraction of the patient and the examiner had to be corrected or else no image would be formed. Examiner’s retinal fatigue led to inaccurate color representation of the patient’s retina. Difficulties with color printing made for inaccurate depictions. By the early 1900s, a battery powered light with mirrors and lenses in the ophthalmoscope made the view of the retina much more stable and clearer. Photography of the retina was introduced and soon color photos were possible.

At the University of Oregon Medical School (now OHSU), John E. Weeks, M.D., a semi-retired ophthalmologist from New York, donated his expertise, library, and funding to the new eye clinic, constructed as part of the University Hospital project in 1955. Treatment of retinal diseases quickly became a major component of the mission of the eye clinic under the direction of Kenneth Swan, M.D., the first Chair of Ophthalmology. He became widely known as an extremely knowledgeable, caring, and empathetic ophthalmologist. At national meetings, his presentations were illustrated with high quality Zeiss photos of the retina as well as artistic documentations of the findings.

About the curator

Donald L. Blanchard, M.D., Clinical Assistant Professor at Casey Eye Institute, is an ophthalmologist and a medical historian. He is a member of the Cogan Ophthalmic History Society and has presented papers including a history of Emily Dickinson’s eye problem. He is a native of Portland and an alumnus of the University of Oregon Medical School. Dr. Blanchard is actively involved in the Casey Eye Institute library, where he was an honored recipient of the Volunteer of the Year Award for his work on the library holdings. His interest in the work of George Bartisch led him to translate Bartisch’s massive ophthalmology textbook, Ophthalmodouleia (1583), from an Early New High German dialect into English.