Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Civil War Era Photographs: Retinal Tissue

From: museumofvision.org

One of the least generally known uses of early medical photography was the work of New York surgeon Reed Brockway Bontecou, who photographed wounded Civil War soldiers between 1864 and 1865. He provides the earliest records of wounded and healed-state conditions of ocular injuries. Bontecou’s images are significant documents of pre-antiseptic era infection states and many of his cases were reproduced as engravings by the Surgeon General’s Office.

Photographs of retinal tissue, both gross and microscopic views, were important research tools used to identify retinal cell components and disease states. Budding ophthalmologists William Thompson and William Norris worked during the Civil War to create some of the highest magnification views of the retina.  However, photomicroscopic views of the retina did not begin to appear in medical journals until the mid 1880s. Here we see an illustration of the photomicrography apparatus as published in the “Catalogue of the Medical Section of the U.S. Army Medical Museum” in 1867.

In the mid 1860s gross pathological views of the retina played a surprising role in medico-legal medicine. Some criminologists believed the retina functioned exactly like film and that at death, a permanent image was formed on the retina that was the last scene observed by the deceased. Thus a murderer could be identified by his image on the retina of a murder victim. In 1868, photographs of the retina called ‘optograms’ were taken and published to disprove the idea.  Despite its implausibility the idea lives on in folk tales and some murderers destroy the eyes of their victims so as not to be identified.


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