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

KURF Students Visit Royal Archives at Windsor: Treasures of the Round Tower

Dr Anna Maerker, Senior Lecturer in the History of Medicine, King’s College London and a member of the GPP Academic Steering Committee

At the Round Tower of Windsor Castle: Harrison Cutler, Ayesha Hussain, Lloyd Ross (left to right).
At the Round Tower of Windsor Castle: Harrison Cutler, Ayesha Hussain, Lloyd Ross (left to right).

This summer, three undergraduate students from the History Department visited the Royal Archives at Windsor, joined by members of staff Dr Angel-Luke O’Donnell and Dr Anna Maerker. Ayesha Hussain, Harrison Cutler and Lloyd Ross received summer fellowships through the King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship scheme (KURF) which gives undergraduate students the opportunity to learn alongside leading academics by pursuing guided research. The students worked on a range of projects related to Georgian history:
– “Marginalised Indians: Native Americans in British Archives, 1763 to 1795” (Harrison Cutler, supervisor: Dr Angel-Luke O’Donnell),
– “Beyond the Madness of King George: Reassessing Medicine and Healing at the Hanoverian Court” (Ayesha Hussain, supervisor: Dr Anna Maerker),
– “The concept of ‘internal police’ in late eighteenth-century discourse” (Lloyd Ross, supervisor: Dr Max Edling).

The students’ visit to the Royal Archives was made possible through King’s partnership with the Royal Household on the Georgian Papers Programme, a major project to digitise and interpret the archives of the Georgian papers held at Windsor Castle. The five year programme, officially launched by Her Majesty the Queen on 1st April 2015, will digitise some 350,000 pages of original archives. With academic leadership provided by King’s College London and international partners, the Programme also supports research and interpretation of this material.

Students and staff were introduced to the archives, digitisation, and conservation lab by project manager Dr Oliver Walton and archivist Rachael Krier. They greatly enjoyed their encounters with this unique collection of historical documents which provided insights into the everyday life of King George III and his household, from the gathering of political intelligence to concerns about the health of the family. The visit also highlighted the challenges of cataloguing and digitising historical archives.

It was good to finally have a chance to practically implement some of the elements I’ve been taught during my degree, as primary sources are always alluded to through photocopies or webpages, and so to read through a variety of actual eighteenth-century pieces was a welcome addition. It was also good to go behind the scenes of Windsor Castle when accessing the collection!” (Lloyd Ross)

Going to the Royal Archives was a fascinating opportunity to visit one of the more unique collections in the UK. Rachael Krier and Oliver Walton showed off the work that goes into cataloguing and digitising the collections in the archive. The morning began with an enlightening introduction about the organisation of the material. Both Oliver and Rachael provided insights into the origins of the collections (from the cellar of the Duke of Wellington) and the relatively good condition of all the materials. The introduction also included a visit to the conservation room and a chance to discuss the cleaning and conservation practices of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century documents. I was particularly interested in the treatment of the leather bindings and mounting practices. These small considerations have a dramatic effect on the lifespan of important documents. Overall, the visit provided insights into the work of archives and helps a researcher better understand and design their own project in the archive.” (Dr Angel-Luke O’Donnell)

The Political Day in Georgian London

St James’s Square in 1753 Coloured engraving by T Bowles (Mayson Beaton Collection, English Heritage)
St James’s Square in 1753. Coloured engraving by T Bowles
(Mayson Beaton Collection, English Heritage)

The Political Day in Georgian London: reflections on a lecture by Professor Amanda Vickery (QMUL),

co-hosted by the Centre for Enlightenment Studies and the Georgian Papers Programme

                              by Angela Lee (MA 18th Century Studies)

Speaking to a packed auditorium on the 23rd of March, Professor Amanda Vickery started her lecture with a gripping account of a group of ladies who stood their ground in an attempt to enter the House of Lords in 1739. They were finally admitted after standing outside for most of the day. For Vickery, this episode was symbolic of female exclusion from politics; the first woman in the House of Lords was only admitted in 1958.

The lecture of the evening was the culmination of ten years of research by herself and Dr. Hannah Greig (University of York). They sought to plot out the schedule of a normal day for the political elite using everyday sources. She peppered her lecture with visual material and anecdotes, which gave the academic lecture a more personal and engaging tone—there were multiple times when everyone erupted into laughter. Her main argument was that women, though excluded from Parliament, were still involved in politics in other ways, since politics in the Georgian era often spilled over into social activities as well.

However, Vickery points out that her project was not simply to write women into politics, but to dispute the idea that aristocratic women were frivolous. She and Greig illustrate that rather than having to split history into high politics and women’s history, the two topics were actually deeply intertwined.

Aristocratic women had the opportunity to own and manage large estates during the eighteenth century, and through these roles, they had power over “rotten boroughs” and appointments. In London, the Parliamentary season took place in the spring and coincided with the social season. Geographically, the day was centered around Westminster and Covent Garden. Often, the day began in a house around the fashionable St. James’s Square, then Parliament, followed by entertainment at the opera or one of the gardens in the evening.

A typical day began at 9 in the morning, which was a normal rising time for both sexes. While Parliament officially opened at 9 (10 in the 1770s), most members arrived around noon and conducted public business around 2 to 3 in the afternoon.

Daily sittings of 6 to 8 hours were common. The morning was reserved for personal matters—letter-writing, shopping, social visits. Men attended levées of the monarch and political ministers, which were used to show patronage and favor. Vickery even noted that during important debates, Parliamentary sittings could go on for days. Members would eat and even sleep in Parliament.

Since Parliament was cramped, urban townhouses, such as the Earl of Shelburne’s Lansdowne House, were also used as political venues. Coffeehouses and chophouses were affiliated with political parties and regularly held political discussions.

The main divide in the day came at dinnertime, sometimes occurring as late as 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and required a change of clothes.

In the evening, social life really took off. London during the eighteenth century offered a multitude of entertainments. Women acted as hostesses for political dinners and parties at their London homes—carefully deciding whom to invite and which parties to attend. Outside of private parties, London offered the opera, theatre, and pleasure gardens (the two most famous being Vauxhall and Ranelagh). Not only entertaining, these were places to see and be seen.

 Politically, it was important to observe who mingled with whom. With all these social activities, a bedtime of 4 in the morning was not unusual. As Vickery pointed out, late nights were fashionable because burning candles so many hours after dark was an expensive habit.

The political day of the Georgian era was a largely social affair, spread between across civilian settings and Westminster. London felt like a political “campus”. Illustrating this point, Vickery told the audience that it took 19 minutes for Greig and her to walk at a leisurely pace from St. James’s Square to Parliament. The coffeehouses, chophouses, and shops would have lined the streets in between them. With the mix of activities, husbands and wives could meet during the day, planning routes through the thoroughfares to maximize their socio-political benefits.

Women were able to influence politics through the myriad social activities that were integral to a successful political career. After all, the political day did not end with the dispersal of Parliament.

Vickery’s lecture led to many questions from the audience, particularly on the topic of female sociability. Many commented on how tiring a political day would have been during the eighteenth century. She noted that indeed, a lack of social stamina would have been detrimental for social and political success.

It sounds peculiar, but eighteenth century politicians had to mix both public and private aspects of their lives just in order to be politicians. Political prestige went hand-in-hand with social prestige. Aristocratic women­­––leaders in high taste and high fashion––had a much larger role high politics than historians had previously given them credit for.


Angela completed her first degree at the University of Chicago in the department of History. This year she is studying at King’s on the MA in Eighteenth Century Studies, an interdisciplinary programme taught in partnership with the British Museum and convened by Dr Elizabeth Eger in the English department. The MA aims to bring together the study of material and intellectual, cultural and political history and draws upon the extraordinary wealth of eighteenth-century resources in London’s museums and archives. The intellectual energy generated through teaching the MA formed a significant factor in founding the AHRI-funded Centre for Enlightenment Studies at King’s.

This blog post was originally posted on the King’s College London English Department blog, on 1 June 2016: https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/english/2016/06/01/the-political-day-in-georgian-london/