By Lanska DJ1., July 2015
During the U.S. Civil War, nutritional night blindness was a common problem among soldiers forced to subsist of nutritionally inadequate diets, but medical officers typically attributed this complaint to malingering and did not suspect or appreciate a dietary basis. More than 8,000 cases of night blindness were recorded among Union troops, but many cases were not tabulated because of incomplete data for black soldiers and prisoners of war. From 1864 to 1865, during which comparable data were available for both whites and blacks, the average annual cumulative incidence of night blindness was 4.3 per 1,000 troops for whites, compared with 11.0 per 1,000 troops for blacks. Affected patients had dilated pupils that were poorly responsive to candle light. Approximately 30 cases of keratomalacia were also reported among severely malnourished and emaciated soldiers with chronic diarrhea, generally within 2 weeks before death. The reported clinical manifestations are characteristic of the full range of vitamin A deficiency eye disease from night blindness to corneal ulceration and perforation. Although medical officers typically accused affected soldiers of malingering, malingering cannot account for either the observed abnormalities of pupillary reflexes, or the corneal epithelial pathology and mortality recorded in severe cases.
Learn more about eye disease and blindness in the Civil War era at www.CivilWarRx.com