The story of healers overcoming visual impairments to render care to others is an old one. In fact, blind physicians have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine for more than a thousand years. Following is a collection of brief biographies, based upon the research of Virginia T. Keeney, MD, of Louisville, Kentucky. They outline the accomplishments of notable figures who, despite their disabilities, contributed significantly to their patients or their profession.
Rhazes (Ar-Razii) -- circa 860 - 932 A.D.
Sometimes referred to as the "Galen of the Arabians," Rhazes was one of the great physicians of the Medieval Ages. He was physician to the Royal Court, chief of Baghdad's main hospital and the author of more than 200 medical treatises. He is best remembered as the first to distinguish smallpox from measles. Rhazes suffered failing eyesight for several years, and though he eventually lost all vision he continued to provide medical consultations and lecture to pupils. The exact nature of his ocular disease is uncertain, though it is said that he refused to be operated on because his caregivers could not answer his questions concerning the anatomy of the eye.
Habatallah Ibn Malka -- circa 1100 A.D.
This Jewish philosopher, physician and astronomer practiced medicine in 12th century Baghdad. He wrote a distinguished summary of galenic anatomy and was reported to have cured psychopathic patients by suggestion. The cause of his blindness is unknown, but his chief work, "Mo-tobar," was composed and dictated to his proteges after losing his sight.
Bourdelot -- circa 1661 -1715
This French physician was among the large procession of healers who attended to King Louis XIV. He suffered from bilateral glaucoma but is believed to have continued in a professional capacity after becoming blind. Bourdelot later became a patient to Michel Brisseau, who subsequently presented research to the Academie royale des sciences, differentiating cataract from glaucoma.
Dr. Hugh James -- 1771-1817
Also known as "the blind physician of Carlisle," Dr. James studied surgery at London and Edinburgh before settling into practice in Whitehaven, England. Two years later he had a severe ocular inflammation, apparently iridocyclitis, which forced him to relinquish the performance of surgery. Eight years later he completely lost his sight. Despite his disability, Dr. James' success as a practitioner grew steadily. His biographer later noted that he was particularly penetrating in eliciting details of the patient's history, thus compensating for visual signs, of which he was deprived.
Hugh Lennox Lodge, MD -- 1796 - 1873
Dr. Lodge of Philadelphia was one of two physicians of his era to remain active in the practice of obstetrics after the loss of vision. He spent several years as a surgeon until the onset of a slowly progressive visual impairment, apparently optic nerve atrophy. This shifted his attention away from surgery and toward obstetrics and gynecology. As his sight grew poorer, his skill and practice in gynecology grew. In the 1860s he published two textbooks: "Diseases Peculiar to Women," and "Principles and Practice of Obstetrics." Into the 20th century his name remained associated with many contributions, including the Hodge plane, the Hodge forceps and the Hodge craniotomy scissors.
Dr. Henry Mills Harlow - 1821-1893
Dr. Harlow was one of New England's pioneers in the institutional aspects of psychiatry. Upon graduation from Berkshire Medical School in 1844, he spent six years of study in the "insane asylums" of Vermont and Maine. In 1850 he was appointed superintendent of the Maine Insane Hospital. While serving in this capacity he had bilateral iritis, which slowly destroyed his vision. Nevertheless, he went on to serve as president of the New England Psychological Society, and in 1861 became president of the Maine Medical Association. After 38 years of institutional work he retired as superintendent, but still visited the hospital and continued to see patients in consultation.
Dr. Thomas Rhodes Armitage - 1824 -1890
Dr. Armitage was an extremely talented physician who had studied in Paris and Vienna before establishing practice in London. His unique abilities attracted the interest of the distinguished internist and author Dr. Robert Bentley Todd, whose practice Dr. Armitage eventually assumed. Within a few years, however, the complete failure of his sight compelled Dr. Armitage to relinquish his clinical practice. Thereafter, he turned his efforts toward the improvement of conditions for the blind. In 1868 he founded the British and Foreign Blind Association, parent organization of London's National Institute for the Blind. He was also a founder of the Royal College for the Blind, to which he contributed substantial time, talent and financial support.
Dr. Emile Javal - 1839- 1907
Dr. Javal devoted his entire life to the visual sciences. He published 16 articles on astigmatism and orthoptics before graduating from the University of Paris Medical School. Within a few years of graduation, he was named the first director of the newly created Ophthalmic Laboratories at the Sorbonne. At age 45, at about the same time that he began to suffer the first symptoms of glaucoma, Dr. Javal was elected to the Academy of Medicine. A year later he lost all vision in his right eye. Vision in his left eye deteriorated over the next 15 years, eventually leaving him completely blind. Nevertheless, Dr Javal continued to make several notable contributions to his field. He developed an "ingenious" writing board for the blind, and pursued scholarly writing until two years before his death.
Dr. Arthur Washington De Roaldes -- 1849-1918
Dr. De Roaldes was a distinguished otolaryngologist who founded the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in New Orleans in 1889. The following year he was elected to chair the otolaryngology department at what is now Tulane University School of Medicine, and rose to be on of the most prominent otolaryngologists in America. In August 1896 Dr. De Roaldes was stricken with optic neuritis, and by November he was completely blind. He continued however, to remain very active in teaching, consultation and other medical affairs for more than 15 years. With the aid of another physician and competent assistants, he maintained an office practice, supervised the administration of a hospital foundation, and even participated in surgical procedures.
Dr. Robert Babcock -- 1851 - 1930
Dr. Babcock, of Chicago, lost vision to both eyes at the age of 13. His parents sent him to a blind institution, where he learned self-reliance. Later, in preparatory school, he wrote "The real handicap I had to overcome was not blindness; it was the danger of thinking that blindness was insuperable." Eventually, Babcock went to Chicago Medical College, where he mastered cadaver dissection by touch and became a doctor in 1878. He went on to study further at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. During lectures he would keep specimens in his hands to follow discussions. Dr. Babcock eventually established practice in Chicago with the aid of an assistant. He went on to secure a teaching appointment at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago and was later appointed attending physician at Cook County Hospital, and a publisher requested him to write a textbook on the cardiovascular system.