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Eye Surgery in the Georgian Age

Ayesha Hussain and Anna Maerker, Department of History, King’s College London

King George III by Samuel Reynolds. 1820.
Fig 1: Portraits of King George III in blindness. Samuel William Reynolds (1820), National Portrait Gallery, NPG D8002.
Fig 2: Portraits of King George III in blindness: Charles Turner (1820), National Portrait Gallery NPG D16056









In his old age, King George III suffered from blindness due to cataracts in both eyes.The affliction was movingly documented in portraits from 1820 by artists Charles Turner and Samuel William Reynolds (Figs.1-2). The King’s doctors considered the possibility of an operation to remove the cataracts, but ultimately decided against it, as they feared a failed attempt to cure his blindness might further damage the aged King’s disturbed mental state. In general, however, in this period surgeons and eye specialists called oculists had already developed effective operations to remove cataracts. Two of the most important innovators in the treatment of cataracts and other eye complains were the royal oculists Baron de Wenzel and John Taylor.

Baron de Wenzel
Fig 3: Baron de Wenzel: portrait by John Conde, 1789 (British Museum, no. 1862, 1213.22)

Baron Michael de Wenzel (or Wenzell, 1724-1790), oculist-in-ordinary to King George III from 1772 until his death in 1790, was an inspiration to many British and European eye surgeons (Fig.3). His work on the treatment of cataracts, in particular, was very influential. Surgeons in the eighteenth century had no access to modern-day anaesthetic, and so eye surgeons had to develop methods which would cause the least suffering. Wenzel was known for the fast pace and accuracy of his operations. It has been recorded that his method of cataract removal lasted less than thirty seconds, using what became to be known as the ‘Wenzel knife’ to form a crescent-like incision in the eye. The Wenzel knife was custom-made by Paul Savigny, the first cutler in England to become a specialist in making surgical instruments (Fig.4). Smaller than the usual opthalmic knives, the Wenzel knife was designed to lessen the escape of the ‘aqueous humour’ in the eye. The virtuosity of Wenzel’s surgical performances meant that sometimes members of high society would watch them for entertainment, as David Chodowiecki’s etching suggests (Fig.5).

Trade card of Paul Savigny
Fig 4: Trade card of Paul Savigny: British Museum (museum number: Heal,52.91)
Wenzel operating
Fig 5: Wenzel operating: Etching by Daniel Chodowiecki, Wellcome Images V0015913. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

Wenzel competed for royal appointments with a dynasty of eminent oculists, the Taylors. John Taylor (1703-1772), who had studied at St Thomas’s Hospital specialising in diseases of the eye, was appointed to George II as his personal oculist in 1736, after travelling for almost a decade as an itinerant eye-doctor (Fig.6).  With degrees from the universities of Basel, Liege and Cologne, and as a fellow of the College of Physicians, Taylor was a well-known oculist He self-advertised constantly, referring to himself as the ‘Chevalier.’ In his autobiography, he stated that he was ‘the most public man under the sun, being personally known not only in every town in Europe, but in every part of the globe.’ Ironically, it is said that John Taylor became blind himself, just before his death in 1772.

John Taylor
Fig 6: John Taylor: The National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections. Image ID: B024718


Both John Taylor’s son and grandson also became eye-doctors, John Taylor (1724-1787), on the death of Baron de Wenzel, was made oculist to George III. John Taylor (1757-1832) was oculist to both George III and George IV. Perhaps the most famous episode in the second John Taylor’s career was his cure of the ‘The Blind Boy of Ightham.’ The eight-year-old William Taylor had been born blind, with cataracts in both eyes. John Taylor operated on him, in front of sixteen spectators, and as soon as the first cataract was removed, the boy reported his “Wonder, at the strange Shapes, Forms, and Colours of many Things, so incomprehensible about him, that He beheld the Room full of Lights, and Moons”.

Restoring vision was important not just for the King himself, but also for his subjects. Loss of vision meant loss of livelihood for many: “The importance of this organ [the eye] and its utility to every individual need not be urged, but to the poor it is their all. Deprived of their sight, their endeavours either for their own support or that of their offspring are cut off and they are on their parishes and a misery to themselves.” A particular threat to the eyes was the condition of ophthalmy, described in 1800 by Edward Moore Noble as ‘a certain redness or inflammation of the eye, with pain.’ Sometimes, when the Ophthalmy was very severe, it would cause the anterior chamber of the eye to fill with pus and eventually caused a paralysis of the retina. As royal physicians Wathen Waller observed, “The soldiers and sailors from their being more confined together have been the greatest sufferers.” In 1802, for instance, the Egyptian Ophthalmia ravaged the Second Regiment of Argyllshire Fencibles. In response, specialist institutions were founded across Britain, especially in the South. Eye hospitals opening in Bristol were especially important as they were partly used to treat naval officers and soldiers.



Royal Archives, Windsor: Letter from Wathen-Waller to the Duke of Cumberland. Ref: 4720-1, Main Series.

William Oldys, Observations on the cure of William Taylor, the blind boy of Ightham, in Kent; who being born with cataracts in both eyes, was at eight years of age, brought to sight, on the 8th of October, 1751, by Mr. John Taylor, jun. oculist, … Also some address to the publick, for a contribution towards the foundation of an Hospital for the blind, already begun by some noble personages. [London]: Printed by E. Owen, in Hand-Court, Holborn, 1753.

James Ware, Observations on the cataract, and gutta serena: including a translation of Wenzel’s treatise on the cataract: a new chapter on the operation of largely puncturing the capsule of the crystalline humour: and many additional remarks on the gutta serena. Third edition London: Mawman, Cox; Edinburgh: Black, 1812.


Portraits of King George III in blindness: Charles Turner (1820), National Portrait Gallery NPG D16056. Samuel William Reynolds (1820), National Portrait Gallery, NPG D8002.

Ophthalmia, Wellcome Images L0033534 “Diagrams of ophthalmia, inflammation of the eye” From: John Vetch, An account of the ophthalmia which has appeared in England since the return of the British Army from Egypt. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807.

Baron de Wenzel: portrait by John Conde, 1789 (British Museum, no. 1862, 1213.22)

Wenzel operating: Etching by Daniel Chodowiecki, Wellcome Images V0015913.

Trade card of Paul Savigny: British Museum (museum number: Heal,52.91)

Wenzel knife: in Ware 1812. [Foyle Special Collections]

Operation for removing cataracts: in Ware 1812. [Foyle Special Collections]

John Taylor: The National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections. Image ID: B024718

Garter Day in the Archives

by Rachel Banke, Ph.D. candidate in American History at the University of Notre Dame. She was an Omohundro Institute Georgian Papers Fellow and spent last June researching at the Royal Archives

Have you ever eaten a cake decorated like Henry VIII?  Well, I have. To be sure, a rotund and comical Henry VIII cake does not grace the Royal Archives every day, but I was graciously treated to a slice when the archives staff hosted me as their guest for Garter Day. How exactly does one celebrate Garter Day besides drinking tea and eating cake?  Standing on the battlements of the Round Tower—in the rain, of course—we watched the members of the Most Noble Order of the Garter descend to St George’s Chapel after their formal knighting in the royal residence.

Getting to experience Garter Day at Windsor was especially interesting to me because I study one of the Order’s former members. My research centers on the 3rd Earl of Bute, who was tutor, advisor, friend, and prime minister to George III. My project, “Bute’s Empire: Reform, Reaction, and the Roots of Imperial Crisis,” uses the figure of the Earl of Bute to unpack dynamics of imperial governance and popular political culture on the eve of the American Revolution.

I was especially thrilled to find the Royal Archives holds an immense collection (over 2,000 documents) of George III’s notes and essays spanning from his childhood to near the end of his life. This material provides fantastic insights into key parts of his political philosophy, including topics such as English history, political economy, the system of British government, and the levying of taxes. The chicken scratch of George’s drafts and notes were some of the most interesting pieces because they show how George refined and developed his thought in a collection mostly devoid of dates. The problems of dating most of the material did raise questions for me about how I can use these otherwise rich sources to speak to George III’s thinking during a particular point in his life. However, I was particularly excited to find the Earl of Bute’s comments and corrections on some of these papers.

I also spent a significant portion of my time on family correspondence. Many of these materials fleshed out the full person of George III in funny, surprising, and touching ways. In particular, an affectionate letter from Prince Frederick to his son, the young Prince George, stands out. The letter outlined the humble, principled, and brave way a King needed to approach his duties to his country and people, sentiments which George III took to heart as he ascended the throne intent on removing corrupt influences and producing a reformation of government.

I would like to express my greatest gratitude toward the staff of the Royal Archives and the Omohundro Institute for making this research possible. I would also like to give my thanks to the staffs of the Royal Library, who patiently hosted me during renovations to the Round Tower, and the Royal Print Room, who were exceedingly helpful when I visited to see items in the satirical print and Cumberland maps collections. I eagerly await the launch of the digitization project, which promises to breathe new life into not only our understanding of high political history of the era, but also important aspects of eighteenth-century cultural and intellectual history as well.


Medicine and the Georgian Navy

Ayesha Hussain and Anna Maerker, Department of History, King’s College London

The long sea voyages of the Georgian period took their toll on the health of sailors. Most dreaded of all was scurvy, a disease caused by Vitamin C deficiency. On a naval voyage to the South Seas under Captain George Anson in the 1740s, navy chaplain Richard Walter witnessed the crew’s suffering: “putrid gums, ulcers of the worst kind, rotten bones, and a luxuriancy of funguous flesh”, and, for many, death.

Leg of a patient with scorbutus (scurvy), 1887. By: Godart, Thomas . Courtesy of St Bartholomew's Hospital Archives & Museum, Wellcome Images.
Fig 1: Leg of a patient with scorbutus (scurvy), 1887. By: Godart, Thomas . Courtesy of St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives & Museum, Wellcome Images.


Not surprisingly, then, the prevention of disease on board became a key concern to British officers and medics. Upon the return of George Anson, who had lost three quarters of his men to scurvy, Scottish naval surgeon James Lind (1716-1794) began to experiment systematically with different foods to determine whether they were effective in preventing the outbreak of scurvy (Fig.1). While the concept of vitamins was still unknown at the time, Lind documented that citrus fruits, in particular, and other foods with a high vitamin C content, improved the condition of patients. In 1795 the British Royal Navy ordered the routine use of citrus juices on their ships. Following this, the incidence of scurvy decreased markedly, as citrus fruits were widely accepted to be antiscorbutics.

Fig 2:James Lind Encyclopaedia Britannica By I. Wright, after a portrait by Sir George Chalmers, 1783

On his Tahitian voyages in the 1770s, Captain James Cook (1728-1779) used a wide range of foods to prevent or combat scurvy – from malt and citrus fruit to mustard and sauerkraut. Cook’s crew also harvested plant species for food from South America, Tierra del Fuego, South Pacific Islands, Tongo, New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, The Falkland Islands, and Kerguellen Island. Thus they discovered scurvy-preventing plants such as Cardamine glacialis, found in South America, which became known as ‘scurvy grass’ (Fig.2). As Cook’s crew were rarely at Sea for more than 60 days, and were encouraged by their captain to eat green salads and plants, outbreaks of the dreaded disease were rare on his ships.

Fig 3: Cardamine Glacialis Discovered in Terra Del Fuego Jan 1769 Artist: Jabez Goldar Natural History Museum Collection: TF.0008./.0003

As the causes of many diseases were still unknown, naval medics investigated a range of potential causes beyond malnutrition. The cramped living conditions on board ship came under special scrutiny, as a prevailing medical theory taught that infections were transmitted by foul air. In order to prevent disease and the transmission of infection, it seemed of great importance that ships should smell sweet. It became routine that the ships’ decks would be cleansed regularly. This also led to the widespread use of ventilation below decks. As there was little fresh water to spare, the men placed their efforts into washing their clothes regularly, instead of themselves, considering there was also no suitable place to bathe. Captains were liable to be blamed for keeping dirty ships if disease broke out on board, so officers had good reasons for attending to the cleanliness of their ships and their crew.


Sources and further reading

Richard Walter, A Voyage Round the World in the Years 1740, 1, 2, 3, 4, by George Anson (1748).

James Lind, A Treatise of the Scurvy in Three Parts (1753).

James Cook, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery. I. The voyage of the Endeavour, 1768-1771 (1893).

Philip Edwards (ed.), The Journals of Captain Cook (1999).

N.A.M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (1986).