My second object for display is an ophthalmoscope. An ophthalmoscope is a medical instrument, which allows the user to view a patient’s fundus [the back of the eye] through the pupil. Essentially, a light source is reflected into the eye, whilst optical lenses enlarge and correct an image of the fundus.
The ophthalmoscope was developed and made famous in the 1850s by the German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz. The instrument was quickly and widely adopted into medical practice, although there was also a familiar story of many established doctors being a little reluctant to adopt such new techniques. The design of the ophthalmoscope was modified over time, but its basic elements still remain in place.
In Britain, one of the earliest users and most ardent proponents of the ophthalmoscope was Dr (later Sir) Thomas Clifford Allbutt (1836-1925). Allbutt – who is now most famous for developing the portable clinical thermometer and for possibly being the inspiration behind Tertius Lydgate in Middlemarch – was physician at the Leeds General Infirmary, and tested his new instrument on patients there and at the nearby West Riding Lunatic Asylum. He wrote up his research into a popular 1871 text, On the Use of the Ophthalmoscope in Diseases of the Nervous System and of the Kidneys.
Allbutt developed the ophthalmoscope for use in diagnosing conditions like albuminuria, syphilis, leukaemia and diabetes. Moreover, as the optic nerve at the back of the eye is essentially an outgrowth of the brain, looking through an ophthalmoscope allowed the doctor to begin making judgements on the general condition of the cerebral matter, including that of patients already deemed to suffer from mental illness.
So, diagnosing illness, even madness, by looking inside the eye? I’m going to claim this fits roughly with our ‘hidden histories’ theme. But moreover, the ophthalmoscope is part of the medical history of Leeds. In developing use of the ophthalmoscope and the thermometer, Allbutt worked with the medical instrument makers of the city. Medical suppliers were big business in Leeds [see the Thackray Medical Museum, and Claire Jones’ thesis, for more on that], which is partly why our collections are strong in medical instruments. That’s a point we should emphasise. And finally, if you’re on the Leeds campus, round the back of the refectory you’ll find a blue plaque commemorating Allbutt’s work. Have a wander round the university, there’s interesting stuff hidden all over the place…
[nb. There is no date to go with the specific ophthalmoscope we displayed. It looks like a Liebreich-type model, probably late 19th– or even early 20th century, but I’m not really sure. If anyone has a better idea of what it is, please do let me know.]