Portraying the Fundus: Production and use of ophthalmoscopic images in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century

By Corinne Doria, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, China

This research was supported by a SIS Grant. A longer piece of this subject will feature in a future SIS Bulletin.

Figure 1: Normal fundus with slight pigmentation. Plate 2 from Haab Otto and Ernest Clarke’s An Atlas of Ophthalmoscopy, with an Introduction to the use of the Ophthalmoscope. Translated and Edited by E. Clarke, Baillière 1895.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, physicians trained in the young medical specialty of ophthalmology were gripped by a particular ambition: to succeed in producing the most accurate images of the fundus oculi. The invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1851, an instrument that made it possible to observe the interior of a living eye for the first time in history, led to an extraordinary increase in the knowledge of ocular anatomy and physiology. Among the ophthalmologists, awareness quickly grew of the usefulness – both for therapeutic and pedagogical purposes – of images detailing the fundus of the eye in normal and pathological states. The interest in ophthalmoscopic images is proved by the flourishing of the ‘atlases of ophthalmoscopy’, voluminous publications entirely devoted to the study and analysis of pictures of different portions of the interior of the human eye. Obtaining photographic images of the fundus were considered particularly advantageous compared to freehand drawings, which had been the standard technique for this kind of anatomical imagery. By the 1880s, the search for technical means to achieve this goal had become the subject of discussions at international ophthalmology symposia and led to an abundance of scientific literature. As the first endoscopic images ever produced, ophthalmoscopic images differed from previous anatomical depictions of the human eye in several respects, including their production technique, authors, purpose, and utilization (Figure 1). They were instrumental in leading ophthalmology to become a legitimate medical specialty.

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