The Father of Ophthalmology: Georg Bartisch
Each day, new discoveries are being made in the field of medicine. This is no different for ophthalmology, as scientists constantly find new treatments for ocular deficiencies or create life-changing eye procedures, like bionic eye transplants. Though these breakthroughs are important, many may wonder about the origins of this branch of science. For modern society to make new and profound discoveries, there must be a foundation upon which this information is constructed. The foundation for ophthalmology is generally understood to have been established by Georg Bartisch, a German physician from the sixteenth century. Now, he is recognized as “the Father of Modern Ophthalmology,” but before, he was only an oculist who believed in superstitions and witchcraft. It is difficult to envision that with his beliefs, he produced the basis of ocular medicine; however, further inspection of his life tells a different story.
In Bartisch’s early life, he became an apprentice for a barber surgeon. The job of a barber surgeon was to lead medical procedures, such as amputations and bloodletting. He later worked under a lithotomist, a specialist in cutting bladder stones, and an oculist, a specialist who dealt with eyes. With further experience, Bartisch was promoted as the court oculist for Duke Augustus I of Saxony, where he continued his studies on eyes and surgical anatomy. He also became the first person in history credited with removing an eye from a living patient. Nonetheless, it was not necessarily his life experiences that made him so significant to ophthalmology; it was his work that he left behind that led to further discoveries.
Bartisch was the first person to write a manuscript of ophthalmic research, called Ophthalmodouleia. It was published in 1583, discussing various disorders of the eye, surgical instruments, as well as surgical techniques. The book contained diagrams of the human anatomy, with flaps that could be lifted to show the different layers within the human head. Other visual components focused on the anatomy of the eye, explaining specific eye diseases, and how they can be treated using herbal remedies. This text was the first of its kind to explore the science of ophthalmology in incredible detail. Even so, not everything in Ophthalmodouleia is scientifically correct, as some of his superstitious beliefs permeated the pedagogy of his research.
In modern times, inquiry related to a subject area can begin with a simple search on the Internet or perusal of texts that are commonly available at most libraries. During Bartisch’s time, knowledge was sometimes influenced by common religious and personal beliefs at the time. To that end, he believed that certain ocular disorders were caused by the sins the patients’ committed or witchcraft. He also believed that the success of a surgery heavily relied on astrology and the phases of the moon. According to Bartisch, presbyopia (far-sightedness) was caused by excessive consumption of alcohol, and that glasses destroyed vision as well. On the whole, his legacy to the development of ophthalmology far outweighs the things that science later proved to be untrue, and his publication of Ophthalmodouleia continues to be recognized as a significant contribution to the foundation of modern ophthalmic medicine.