Tales of Canterbury and eye surgery

Written in the 14th Century, The Canterbury Tales is considered one of the greatest poems in all of English literature.

"Here Bygynneth the Book of the Tales of CanterburyWhen the soft sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things, refreshing the parched earth, nourishing every sapling and every seedling, then humankind rises up in joy and expectation. The west wind blows away the stench of the city and the crops flourish in the fields beyond the walls. After the waste of winter, it is delightful to hear birdsong once more in the streets. The trees themselves are bathed in song. It is a time of renewal, of general restoration."Chaucer G, Ackroyd P (retold by). The Canterbury Tales, A retelling. NY: Viking Penguin; 2009.

My favorite part is the beginning, quoted above, that beautifully describes the return of Spring. Now that the weather in my part of the country has been dipping near freezing, anticipating the change of seasons so beautifully described by Chaucer gives us something great to look forward to. It is this lack of beauty in spring's arrival that makes so many in relatively uniform climes (e.g., southern California and Florida) feel that they are really missing out on life.

It was not always thus. For example, Jonas Friedenwald, MD-a famous Baltimore ophthalmologist-published a paper in 1932 that described a fisherman getting a chemical burn of the eye from fish bile while cleaning his catch.

The article begins: "The road of science is a tortuous one, that twists and turns and not infrequently crosses some of the most ancient footpaths. We were, therefore, much interested to discover, when we had completed the studies that are the subject of the paper, that our ideas had been anticipated by an ancient observer some two thousand years ago . . . ."1

Arnall Patz, MD, who passed away earlier this year, had described this as "an example of the eloquent style and sharp wit that would appear in many of [Dr. Friedenwald's] future publications."2 When was the last time you read a scientific paper that struck you as eloquent, or that contained anything resembling the soaring rhetoric that we today tend to associate with politicians and perhaps lawyers, but not physicians?

In 1900, an article in the American Journal of Ophthalmology described a "brilliant" eye surgeon, George Critchett, who used poetry as a sedative while removing cataracts: "It was an interesting and refreshing sight to see the talented and ever-jovial Mr. Critchett recite Shakespeare or some other poetry while performing an operation; he almost invariably succeeded in diverting the patient's attention from the surgical work as if casting a charm over him by the beautiful recitations."3

The question in the mind of today's ophthalmologists, upon learning of Critchett's technique, is "Is there a modifier for intraoperative poetry?"

Perhaps we should try to encourage more interesting writing in our ophthalmic publications. Akin to that found in "The Canterbury Tales." But not as interesting as "The Miller's Tale."


1. Verhoef FH, Friedenwald JS. Injury to cornea and conjunctiva due to fish bile. Am J Ophthalmol. 1932;5:857.

2. Patz A. Jonas Friedenwald, man of science. Inv Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 1980;19:1139.

3. Pollak S. Personal recollections of early cataract extractions. Am J Ophthalmol. 1900;17:36.

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD
director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building 600 N. Wolfe St. Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514
E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu

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