Looking Back at the History of Ocular Medicine through the Albert Collection of Ophthalmology Material

One of the most compelling aspects of processing manuscript collections is the ever-present possibility of finding something unexpected: a photograph tucked between leaves of correspondence, or a Christmas greeting card inexplicably lodged in a stack of legal papers. Nevertheless, I was unprepared last week to lift a pile of photocopied journal articles and find my gaze locked with that of a disembodied human eye:

Well, a prosthetic eye. This early twentieth century glass specimen, a work of realism down to the last hair-thin blood vein, is one of many curiosities in the Dr. Daniel and Eleanor Albert collection of ophthalmology material (Ms. Coll. 1320). From sixteenth century optometric treatises (“Theses Medicae, de Ophthalmia” by Paulus Weinhart) to twenty-first century scholarship (“Eye Making: A Brief History of Artificial Eyes Made in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Surrounding Areas” by Michael Hughes), the varied contents of this collection represent numerous stages in the development of the field of ophthalmology, and significant moments in the history of medicine. A letter written by Helen Keller in 1936, after the death of her friend and teacher Anne Sullivan is heart wrenching (“it is winter in my life since the guardian angel of fifty years no longer walks by my side”). Other files are macabre, including a post-mortem photograph from 1875 of a set of short-lived quintuplets. And nearly outnumbering the manuscripts in this collection are dozens of antique ophthalmoscopes and spectacles, from diminutive Victorian eyeglasses with emerald and cobalt colored lenses to round Chinese tortoiseshell magnifiers (and, of course, the unnerving artificial eye).

In amongst these eclectic artifacts are a few items that relate to the University of Pennsylvania including a letter written by a student at the School of Medicine in 1874. Reading this letter is like eavesdropping on a stranger’s conversation: it’s both amusing and confusing. Which mutual friends are the correspondents gossiping about? What was the comic key to their inside jokes? But while this letter raises questions about the correspondents’ social circle, it answers some about their academic environment. The author, “G. G. S.,” writes (jestingly, one hopes),

“I really did not have time to answer [your letter] sooner. In the evening I dissect and during the day attend lectures and study. I would send you some skin if I could, for I know that you can’t get it in Emaus*- but it might make a smell and a sensation. So if you want any you must come down here.”

The documents in the Albert collection –indeed, maybe all historic manuscripts- are transportative in some respect. They provide a glimpse into a different, and sometimes profoundly distant, time and place. Yet it can be especially fun to peer into a past not wholly unfamiliar: the letterhead of the 1874 letter by G. G. S. shows Claudia Cohen Hall, where I’ve attended many a lecture (and exactly zero nighttime dissections). Now, after nearly a century and a half, this document has resettled just steps from the site where it was created.


*The Pennsylvania town where ‘Sam,’ the recipient of this letter, lived (and which is now spelled ‘Emmaus’).

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