Severe myopia affected the attitudes of both Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, but in opposite ways, according to biographer Edmund Morris.
“Since both of them became aware of their myopia in their early teens, it was obviously a formative experience for both of them,” Morris told Ophthalmology Times
Discovering that his vision could be corrected gave Roosevelt an appreciation for fine details, and he developed a talent for remembering faces, Morris said. Reagan, on the other hand, seemed content to view the world in broad generalities, he said.
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Morris, who has written books about both U.S. presidents, contrasted the effects of myopia on them in the Michael F. Marmor, MD, Lecture in Ophthalmology and the Arts at the 2015 American Academy of Ophthalmology meeting.
Theodore Roosevelt discovered his myopia at age 13 after getting his first gun and noticing his friends were shooting at targets he could not see. He mentioned the problem to his father and soon received his first pair of glasses.
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“I had no idea how beautiful the world was until I got those spectacles,” Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography.
The experience gave him sympathy for efforts in public schools to assist children with all kinds of physical disabilities.
Clear vision became so important to Roosevelt that he later carried multiple pairs of spectacles with him. The pince-nez became a trademark for him.
For a 2011 article
in the Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal, Milton Bruce Shields, MD, a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at the Yale University School of Medicine, searched for a pair of the glasses in collections devoted to Roosevelt. He could not find any.
However, according to a report of a pair examined at the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary in 1959, they measured -7 D.
Later, Roosevelt lost vision in his left eye because of a cataract and possibly because of a retinal detachment resulting from a boxing match while he was president, Dr. Shields wrote.
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Growing up with poor vision may explain Roosevelt’s highly sensitive hearing. His writing is filled with auditory memories, Morris said.
Roosevelt also developed a keen intellectual appetite, devouring a book a day. His photographic memory impressed many of the people he met during his world travels. “Which of our elected presidents of the last century have showed a comparable knowledge of and sensitivity toward foreign cultures?” Morris asked.
And Roosevelt could often identify people he had met only briefly many years before.
Reagan was a different story
By contrast, “Ronald Reagan thought the world around him was a blur, and not a particularly interesting one, because he was born in rural Tampico, North Illinois,” with its featureless topography, Morris said. “Much of his certainty [and] lack of interest in peripheral detail derived from the simple geometry that encircled him in his formative years.”
He discovered his myopia as a teenager when he tried on his mother’s spectacles, and in his words, “discovered the gloriously sharply outlined world.” His visual acuity was later measured at 20/200.
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Myopia influenced Reagan’s choice of swimming and football as sports because they required less distance vision, Morris said. It also limited him to a desk job during World War II.
Yet in contrast to Roosevelt, Reagan often chose not to correct his myopia out of concern for his personal appearance.
When he first went to Hollywood, a girlfriend advised him, “If you could just take off those glasses, I could get you a screen test.”
His acting career took off. And although he was fitted with a pair of scleral contact lenses, he would not wear them while performing because they gave him a “bug-eyed” look.
He seemed to turn his poor vision to his advantage, Morris said. “Any actor will tell you that it’s a fatal mistake to focus on any particular face in the audience in front of you.”
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At times, he even had difficulty recognizing his own children, Morris said. “His daughter Patti told me that on several instances when she walked in he would look at her with an expression that made it clear that he wasn’t sure whether it was her or his other daughter Maureen.”
When giving political speeches later in his life, he would wear a contact lens in only one eye so that he observed the audience’s reaction with that eye while reading notes with the other, Morris said.
“If I were asked which man most influenced the course of history, the one who embraced the world in all its diversity, or the one who saw it in large blocks of essentials, I guess I would have to answer the guy who couldn’t tell his own children apart,” Morris concluded.