Medical Historian Prescribes, Fact Checks for Television

Laird Harrison

December 18, 2018

Secretary Ida Blankenship on Mad Men, played by Randee Heller, wearing the large aphakic spectacles typically prescribed before intraocular lenses became available (Source: AMC)

SAN FRANCISCO — Jenny Benjamin was in her office at the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) when she got an email from a researcher for the TV show Mad Men. A character on the program, set in the 1960s, was undergoing cataract surgery and the producers wanted the episode to be as historically accurate as possible.

"I enjoy getting those enquiries and helping both historians and fiction writers get it right," said Benjamin, director of the academy's Museum of Vision, which is dedicated to chronicling the history of ophthalmology.

She supplied the necessary details and, not long afterward, the secretary of the show's protagonist, Don Draper, appeared on screen wearing large aphakic spectacles.

Until now, the diverse and quirky collection at the museum has only been available for viewing by appointment. This will soon change.

20/20 Vision

As part of the academy's celebration of the year 2020 — the symbolism of those digits too good to ignore — it plans to open the museum to the public in a storefront gallery located in the AAO headquarters in San Francisco.

Collection of glass eyes from the AAO Museum of Vision (Source: Steven Gregory, Medscape)

Visitors will be able to trace the history of spectacles through a collection of 3000 pairs. Among the other artifacts are an Egyptian amulet from 2300 that wards off the evil eye, glass eyeballs painted to depict diseases, medical texts from the Renaissance period, a working keratometer from 1899, and the very first LASIK machine.

Besides helping storytellers and record keepers, the museum will make the history of ophthalmology tangible in a way that only solid objects can. It will relay the academy's messages to a wider audience and encourage people to take good care of their eyes.

The academy plans to develop interactive exhibits, such as a virtual reality fly-through of a human eye, in the new 3500-square-foot storefront space.

Jenny Benjamin, director of the Museum of Vision, which is dedicated to chronicling the history of ophthalmology (Source: Steven Gregory, Medscape)

"I think one of the things the museum is going to do is capture the attention of young people — teens and tweens — and get them thinking about careers in medicine and maybe ophthalmology," Benjamin explained.

That was not necessarily the intention when the AAO started the museum. The archiving began in 1979 when the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology split into separate academies devoted to each of the professions.

"The first thought was to preserve the academy's history," said Benjamin. "But it quickly became clear that physicians are collectors." For now, the 38,000 objects fill up display cases scattered throughout the headquarters, a room with drawers full of small objects, and three off-site storage units, one each for furniture, fine arts, and documents.

Couching depicted in a sixteenth-century text book (Source: Steven Gregory, Medscape)

The artifacts illustrate the slow pace of medical progress until recent times. An ancient Etruscan cataract couching needle in the collection resembles those used in the nineteenth century, and used still in some parts of the world. A couching illustration from a sixteenth-century text book was copied a century later in another text, without any apparent thought of an update.

The collections tell stories not only about the evolution of science, but also reflect culture. Office furniture from the nineteenth century, for example, is beautifully made from leather and wood — and impossible to sterilize.

A set of electrodes from the quackery collection could be used to give your eyeballs a jolt. "Why? Because at the time — 1915 to 1920 — it was thought that electricity was a cure-all," Benjamin explained.

A test for color blindness provides the opportunity to discuss why ophthalmologists thought little about whether their patients could distinguish colors until a Swedish train engineer's inability to read a signaling light led to a horrible accident.

Examples from the museum's compilation of eyewear (Source: Steven Gregory, Medscape)

Specimens in the eyewear collection trace changes in fashion. They include early pince-nez, elegant lorgnettes, and spectacles that could be sown into a wig or folded into an ink pen.

A set of eye cups illustrate how infection was treated — and possibly spread because the cups probably harbored microorganisms and were shared within families.

Benjamin said she expects the museum to attract foot traffic because it is close to attractions such as Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and the terminus of the most popular cable car line. She hopes to develop relationships with local schools and other city museums.

Eye cups from the collection (Source: Steven Gregory, Medscape)

Already, the academy has raised $7.5 million of the $12 million goal to establish an endowment that will allow the museum to operate indefinitely without charging admission.

The history of medical museums is a storied one, said Michael Moran, MD, curator of the William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History at American Urological Association headquarters in Linthicum, Maryland.

It goes back to 1600, when Ulysses Aldrovandi is believed to have set up the first one in Bologna, Italy. Today, most medical specialty societies have some sort of collection, he said.

Both the urology and ophthalmology museums include videos of surgical procedures, which could be off-putting to the general public. But the ick factor can work both ways, said Moran, describing his personal experience with an exhibit called "Nightmares in Urology."

"The intent was to show some of the more macabre things that urologists have to deal with around the world. We had the New York Times and Washington Post come."

Ophthalmologists surely will not be outdone.

Follow Medscape on Twitter @Medscape and Laird Harrison @LairdH

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