Reviews & Comments

Completing a Masters degree in the History of Medicine, Science and Technology inspired me to find out more about the history of optometry. The British profession of Optometry (Ophthalmic Optics) is just over 100 years old but only a few books tell the story of its birth and any progress that has taken place since 1896.

There are plenty of historical documents about eye disease, theories of vision and even images of bygone spectacle frames. However until the late 19th century there are few accounts telling about the men or women who sold or fashioned the glass or glasses needed to correct refractive errors. Some  prospective spectacle wearers reportedly chose their glasses by trial and error and there is documented evidence of ‘mail order’ spectacles: which raises (to me) the question of how a spectacle wearer remote from a spectacle glazer knew what strength of spectacle lens would be of benefit.

The following are some personal reflections on books that I have read and found to be of interest to the History of British Optometry. It will be added and updated as time permitts.

History of the British Optical Association (1895 – 1978)Margaret Mitchell M.A., 1982

The Newton Papers (The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts) – Sarah Dry: Oxford University Press, 2014.

The Victorian Eye (A Political History of Light and Vision in Britian, 1800-1910) – Chris Otter: The University of Chicago Press, 2008

  • Otter examines how Victorian overseers had to find innovative and accurate techniques to inspect,measure and record developing technologies of their era.

Vanities of the Eye (Vision in Early European Culture) – Stuart Clark: Oxford University Press, 2007

  •  Dr Yvonne Gaspers in her review of Vanities of the Eye considers Clark’s view of how visual imagery was discussed during the 15th to 17th century. I was left reflecting as to the effect poor vision (whether due to refractive error or disease) might have had on the visions of conjured apparitions. And whether the images formed by spectacle lenses might had been seen to be the work of demons: were lens grinders thought to be associates of  the Devil helping him to corrupt devout Christians?
The Glass Bathyscaphe (How glass changed the world) – Alan Macfarlane & Gerry Martin. Profile Books Ltd, 2002.
  • In Chapter 8 the authors examine historic differences between Asian myopic vision and  far sighted Western eyes. They reflect on whether humanity is constrained by blurred vision or what adaptations societies can make.

The Science of SeeingIda Mann and Antoinette Pirie: Penguin Books, 1946.

  • Read with 21st century eyes it is intriguing to see how insights into eyesight have changed since Mann and Pirie wrote The Science of Seeing. The authors commence with explanations of how vision happens in different species before relating historical theories about human vision and then explaining how it can fail, showing how old-wives tales persist long after science has revealed new facts that should challenge outdated beliefs.


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