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Antique book collection brings ophthalmic history to life


The American Academy has acquired the Spencer E. Sherman, M.D. Antique Ophthalmology Book Collection. This collection consists of more than 130 rare books and catalogs, representing some of the oldest and most important texts ever published in ophthalmology.


Take-home message: The American Academy has acquired the Spencer E. Sherman, M.D. Antique Ophthalmology Book Collection. This collection consists of more than 130 rare books and catalogs, representing some of the oldest and most important texts ever published in ophthalmology.



Our Ophthalmic Heritage By Norman B. Medow, MD, FACS

San Francisco-Philanthropy and the collecting and preservation of important books have not been relegated to the pages of history thanks to a “lasting monument to early pioneers of ocular science.”

The Museum of Vision of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) has received a donation of the Spencer E. Sherman Collection of Antique Ophthalmology Books. This collection of more than 130 rare books and catalogs represents the lifelong collection of Spencer Sherman, MD, a New York ophthalmologist and one of the founders of the museum and early chairman of its board of directors.

The collection is important for the breadth of ophthalmology subjects covered, as well as the centuries of history it spans (16th through 19th century). The collection contains seminal works in the fields of glaucoma, cataract, cornea, embryology, refraction, and ophthalmic history.

Significant texts

Two of the most important books in the history of ophthalmology are included in this collection.

The first book, entitled “Ophthalmodouleia: Das ist Augendienst” (“In the service of the Eyes”), was written by Georg Bartisch in 1583. Bartisch is considered by many to be the father of modern ophthalmology. This book is considered to be the first on ophthalmic medicine and comprehensive surgery written in the vernacular.

It was a folio edition book published with 92 pages of woodcuts-one of the first books to have such woodprints-and described all of the surgery and medicine related to the eyes known at this period. Some of the woodcuts are in overlay and are mobile.

The book’s popularity remained so strong that a second edition-with the woodcuts reflecting the clothing of the period-was published in 1686. The title page (Figure 1) is classical for the great books of the period, such as “De Humani Corporis Fabrica,” published in 1543 by Andreas Vesalius.

The second book (Figure 2)-“Beschreibung eines Augenspiegels zur Untersuchung der netzhaut in Lebenden Auge” (“Description of an ophthalmoscope for examination of the retina in a living eye”)-written by Hermann Helmholtz in 1851 is equally as important. It describes what is arguably considered to be one of the two most important portable clinical diagnostic instruments in all of medicine-the ophthalmoscope. (The other instrument being the stethoscope first described in 1816.)

The discovery was made because Helmholtz wanted to aid his physiology class in understanding the eye. He used his wife to develop the ophthalmoscope and thereby she was the first person whose fundus of the eye was seen in the living eye.

The ophthalmoscope’s discovery revolutionized eye care, and within a short period all of the leading eye-care practitioners in the world had one. Helmholtz sent one of his instruments to Bowman in London, Von Graefe in Berlin, and Donders in Holland-thus, three of the greatest ophthalmologists of the period had one soon after its discovery.

Their descriptions of the fundus of the eye led to the publishing of a number of atlases of the retina-two of which are present in the Sherman collection: “Atlas of Ophthalmoscopy” by Otto Haab published in 1898, and the “Atlas of the Ophthalmoscopy” by Liebreich published in 1870.

Also included in the collection is Volume 1 of the transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society, as well as classic textbooks of the period by Scarpa, Beer, Fuchs, and Desmarres.

Knowledge of what instruments were present and used at any period is gained by looking at instrument manufacturers’ catalogs of the time. The Sherman collection has a large number of these catalogues-most importantly, by those of the following companies: Queen, Maw, American Optical, and Mueller, as well as others.

Books from this collection will be on display on a rotating basis in specially designed cabinets at the AAO’s Museum of Vision in San Francisco. Researchers, ophthalmologists, and visitors may visit the collection by appointment (http://bit.ly/19SqQTA).

The Museum Of Vision is pleased at the generosity of Dr. Sherman to have his book collection continue giving pleasure to generations of future ophthalmologists, interested historians, and bibliophiles. There is something special about holding a book in your hands that is 200 years old and first described an important historical event or invention-the content of which can be obtained on the Internet, but it is not the same!


Norman B. Medow, FACS, is director, pediatric ophthalmology and strabismus, Montefiore Hospital Medical Center, and professor of ophthalmology and pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY. He did not indicate a financial interest in the subject matter.



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