The Eye as Art: Anatomy and Vision in the 18th Century

Engraving of the eye in DeGravers' A Complete Physico-Medical and Churugical on the Human Eye and the Demonstration of Natural Vision (1780).
Fig. 1: Engraving of the eye in  A Complete Physico-Medical and Churugical on the Human Eye and the Demonstration of Natural Vision (Degraver, 1780).

There is not one Part of the whole Body, that discovers more Art and Disign (sic), than this small Organ: All its Parts are so excellently well contrived, so elegantly formed and nicely adjusted that none can deny it to be an Organ as magnificent and curious, as the Sense is useful and entertaining.

— William Porterfield in A Treatise on the Eye, The Manner and Phaenomena of Vision, 1759

The Dittrick Museum is thrilled to have Dr. Jonathan Lass present “Eye of the Artist” for the upcoming Zverina Lecture on Oct. 14th. Dr. Lass, the Charles I. Thomas Professor, and formerly chair, in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Case Western Reserve University and Medical Director of the Cleveland Eye Bank, will discuss the ways eye conditions impacted the work of artists including Pissaro, Monet, Degas, and O’Keefe, and how individual vision could influence major artistic movements throughout history.

Fig. 2: Engraving of how the parts of the eye create an image of an object. From Chandler (1780).
Fig. 2: Engraving of how the eye creates an image of an object. From Chandler (1780).

Although Dr. Lass will focus on pathological conditions for his lecture, today’s post looks at how 18th century physicians described “normal” or “natural” vision. These authors’ considered the eye, with its delicate structures and wondrous design, as a work of art. To disseminate research about these intricacies, engravers used immense skill and detail to produce anatomical representations (Fig. 1) and optics diagrams (Fig. 2).

Aside from graphical renditions, these early writings on the eye relied on artistic terms. Rays of light “paint” images onto the retina and these unique “strokes” are received by the Sensorium (the sensory part of the brain) and interpreted as “sketches of nature” by a viewer’s Mind.

Fig. 3: Structure of the eye and optic nerves from
Fig. 3: Structure of the eye and optic nerves from Degravers (1780).

Medical authors’ use of this artistic terminology reflected contemporary discussions surrounding the relationship between vision and reality. Were the perceptions of the Mind accurate depictions of the environment or were they truly only “sketches”? Could the eyes be trusted as empirical tools in science, or were external devices, like microscopes, necessary to ensure precise experimental data? Do eyes act as artists or instruments? Debates about the nature of colors (inherent in objects, dependent on light, created by the eyes) and the origins of delusions (originating from the mind or the organs) circled in scientific communities where the hallmark of research was eye-witnessed experimentation.

We hope you join us for the Zverina Lecture to hear more about how the eyes’ structure and function influence perceptions of reality, and how major artists’ health impacted the way they saw and portrayed the world around them.

The talk begins at 6:00PM, followed by a reception in the Dittrick Museum gallery. There is no charge, but you must register to get a seat! Please RSVP to Jennifer Nieves at 216/369-3648 or via email at

Continue reading The Eye as Art: Anatomy and Vision in the 18th Century

By the Light of the Fever-, Gout- and Plague-Inducing Moon: Lunar Medicine

Fig. 1: Frontispiece from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae showing the moon reflecting the sun's light like a mirror.
Fig. 1: Frontispiece from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae showing the moon reflecting the sun’s light like a mirror.
Today, July 20th, is Moon Day! To commemorate the day humans first walked on the moon in 1969, the Dittrick Museum looks at how centuries of scholars considered the movements of the moon and planets as having a great impact on health.

Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century polymath priest, created an astrological chart know as a “Sciathericon” in his treatise on optics and light called Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (1671). This chart (Fig. 2) connected the zodiac with parts of human anatomy, types of health conditions, and the medications that could be used to treat these bodily complaints.

Fig. 2: Sciathericon from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, Kircher, 1671. From the Dittrick Rarebooks Collections
Fig. 2: Sciathericon from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, Kircher, 1671. From the Dittrick Rare Book Collections
For example, the man in the Sciathericon stands with his right foot on the moon with a dotted line connecting his foot to “Podagra” or gout. Kircher suggests practitioners use “Intybus” or chicory to treat gout. At this time, physicians considered gout to occur most frequently in the Spring, or under the astrological sign of Pisces. Kircher’s Renaissance contemporaries frequently wrote about the co-occurrence of gout attacks with the full moon and the vernal equinox. Rather than allowing human complaints to be random, these charts functioned like clocks, ordering the observed illnesses and behaviors to correspond with regular planetary movements.

Fig. 3: The Moon and Lunar Cycle from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, 1671.

Like Kircher, Nicholas Culpeper, a botanist and physician, looked to the heavens to understand human health. The frontispiece of Culpeper’s Last Legacy, a posthumous publication from 1676, shows the author with a crystal, a skull, and celestial globe, displaying the interrelatedness of astrology and the body in 17th-century medicine.

Fig. 3: Nicholas Culpeper’s portrait from Culpeper’s Last Legacy, 1676. From the Dittrick Rare Book Collections.
Fig. 4: Nicholas Culpeper’s portrait from Culpeper’s Last Legacy, 1676. From the Dittrick Rare Book Collections.
Culpeper’s system of medicine involved indexing herbs by the astronomical bodies governing them. If a physician knew the planet ruling a particular part of human anatomy and causing disease, treatment with herbs of the opposite planet could cure the affliction. For example, Culpeper writes that the moon is the antipathy of Saturn. Thus, moon-governed herbs like white saxifrage, a small white-flowering plant (No. 167 in Fig. 5) can cure diseases of the Saturn-ruled veins, like blockages and poisonings.

White Saxifrage from Culpeper's Complete Herbal, 1826. From the Dittrick Rare Book Collections.
Fig. 5: White Saxifrage from Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, 1826. From the Dittrick Rare Book Collections.
Eighteenth century physicians continued to look for connections between health and the position of the moon. British physician with the East India Company, Francis Balfour published A Treatise on the Influence of the Moon in Fevers in 1784. Balfour considered the time three days before a full moon to three days after the moon begins to wane to be a critical time for fever-diseases.

Although these findings came from his work in Bengal, India, Balfour extrapolated that all fever diseases function “in a similar manner in every inhibited quarter of the Globe; and consequently, a similar attention to it is a matter of general importance in the practice of Medicine” (p. 41).

Richard Meade, Royal Physician to King George II, also examined the link between the moon and medicine. Meade writes in A Treatise Concerning the Influence of the Sun and Moon upon Human Bodies and the Diseases thereby Produced (1748) that “it is most certain that epidemic fevers are caused by some noxious qualities of our atmosphere; and therefore it seems reasonable to suppose that such changes as produce those effects may happen in it in all seasons by the influence of the moon” (p. 68).

Meade incorporated the growing literature on gravity and tides into his medical arguments. He postulated that when the moon is closest to the Earth, the gravitational pull felt by oceans is also exerted on the atmosphere and a human’s circulatory system. By drawing on physics, Meade provided a mechanistic explanation of health fluctuations.

Fig. 8: Meade's opening statement in A Treatise concerning the Influence of the Sun and Moon upon Human Bodies and the Diseases thereby produced, 1748. From the Dittrick Rare Books Collections.
Fig. 8: Meade’s opening argument in A Treatise concerning the Influence of the Sun and Moon upon Human Bodies and the Diseases thereby Produced, 1748. From the Dittrick Rare Books Collections.
According to Meade, the twice daily occurrence of a closer moon causes regular swelling of the blood vessels. Additionally, conditions like plague frequently erupted during the new and full moons (when the lunar gravitational pull causes the highest barometric pressure) and grow worse during the tides. Meade’s work sought to order the seemingly random outbreaks of epidemics based on atmospheric variables. This research kept with contemporary miasma theory before information about plague-causing bacteria became available.

Today’s lunar holiday commemorates human’s intelligence, strength and determination to achieve previously unreachable goals. Meanwhile, this post recounted how centuries of researchers looked up and worried about how the moon’s position and proximity to our planet could, like clockwork, make us weak, cure ailments, or bring chaos and death. However, there is a similarity between the astronauts of the 20th and 21st centuries and the authors highlighted here. They sought to reveal the unknown facts of the universe and make clear our place in it. We celebrate them all today.

Monstrous History Part II: The “Gothic” Influence of Ambroise Paré

Last week, I introduced the “monsters and marvels” of Ambroise Paré. This unique text is not a collection only (or even primarily) of cases witnessed by the good doctor. Such treatises also existed, and became more popular over time. Both Dr. William Smellie and Dr. William Hunter published extensively about their practices, and many doctors described difficult labors or unusual births. Paré’s 15th century text is, however, much more a compendium; he collects tales from afar, gathers anecdotes from ancient manuscripts and compiles accounts from myth and local legend. Parts of the book actually discuss strange animals from foreign climes, and there is a fairly accurate depiction of what we now know to be a skate or sting ray. To his readers, these accounts of marvels would be mystery as much as medicine.  The image above left was one of the more verified accounts, and the man in the picture in his mid-forties. According to Paré, many came to see him–as they did other “marvels–and a number of “birth monsters” were put on display for money.

Other descriptions that are fairly well-verified (or at least imaginable) include conjoined twins and babies born with double organs. Below is an account of a man with a second head (rather than a second body) protruding from the naval.

In addition to these figures, Paré also describes some very unusual wonders–including children who appear to be half-animal, are born with fur and claws or tails, or who seem to be a hybrid creature of numerous species. These hybrid marvels are important to consider from the standpoint of midwifery, as the cause of such monstrosity lay blame not only on fate or the stars, but also on parents–particularly mothers–whose imaginations were thought to cause the anomaly. The figure below was thought to result from a woman holding a live frog in her hand to ward off a fever on the night she conceived. (It is to be assumed, of course, that she put the frog down first).

Interestingly, Paré’s sixteenth-century sensibility about the cause of monstrous birth was still present and highly debated in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Joseph Duverney, professor of anatomy (1648-1730), considered monstrosity a problem of divine origin—and divine wrath. Physician Nicholas Lemery (1645-1715), by contrast, believed in accidental origins and Jacques Winslow (1669-1760) suggested “accidental causes could mask metaphysical [that is, divine] forces.”[1] Other major thinkers of the period—from Nicolas Malebranche to Denis Diderot—returned to this question in philosophical works. Malebranche (member of the Académie Royale des Sciences) published Tractatus de inquisitione veritatis in 1753. The text, which was translated into English and reprinted throughout the 18th century, was critical to popularizing the idea that mother imagination could cause birth defects—a devastating assumption also present in Paré, who claimed “monsters should not live among us,” as they could imprint upon the “fruit” of pregnant women because of the “ideas which might remain in their imaginative faulty, over the form of so monstrous a creature.”[2] Two devastating consequences arise from this philosophy. The first is the estrangement and banishment of the malformed individual (and Paré includes among these those who have been marred by accident or illness as well). Such points continue to be made into the eighteenth century; a letter published in The Political State, February 1731, suggests the banishment of beggars, who must surely affect the developing fetus—and delicate feelings—of pregnant women.[3] The second consequence, however, is of longer standing: that is, the continued culpability of mothers in the malformation of their children. Enlightenment medicine did much to elucidate the complexities of generation and birth, particularly as to anatomy, but it did little to dispel the lingering horror of the monster birth—or to curb its enthusiastic reception among a reading public curious for marvels.

Ruth Perry reports on a number of “monster” birth cases in the 18th century, including one about a dead infant being half-consumed by live snakes. It was printed in The Weekly Journal or British Gazatteer on October 20th, 1722.[4] However, it is in fact a re-telling (with embellishment) from Paré’sMonsters and Marvels. In Paré’s account, the child “had a live snake attached to its back, who was gnawing on this little dead creature”.[5] But Paré was citing Lycosthenes from 1494, and for all we know, Lycosthenes was reporting a marvel earlier still. The same may be said of the 365 children of Countess of Hennebrg, 1276; whether fabrication or the result of hydatidiform mole, the story of her miraculous brood was still being circulated well into later centuries—even appearing in broadsheet ballad form as “The Lamenting Lady.”[6] The eighteenth century account of the dead-baby-live-snakes improvises as well, not in form so much as character. The account in the British Gazatteer introduces new agents—a frightened female midwife, and a valiant husband who kills the snakes. In any case, these stories of monster births are perhaps most marvelous for their ability to fire the imagination of successive generations of readers—each adding to it that which was appropriate to their particular historical moment.

In part three, I will talk about the lingering use of Paré’s work in the latter 18th and early 19th century… And a different sort of “monster” birth: thenaissance of Gothic fiction.

About Brandy Schillace 

A medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction, Dr. Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between medical history and literature. She is the Managing Editor, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and has worked as an assistant professor of literature. She also leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.

[1] “The 18th Century: Monsters as a Battleground”
[2] Paré, 9.
[3] “A Further Account of Advises from Foreign Parts.” The Political State, Vol 41. (London: Jan-June, 1731), 161.
[4] Perry, Ruth. “The Veil of Chastity.” Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century Britain. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982), 147.
[5] Paré, 58.
[6] Speert, Harold. Obstetrics and Gynecology: A History and Iconography, 3rd Ed. (New York: Parthenon Publishing Ltd.), 393-394