Eye Diseases in the 1800’s- Graphic Photos


Just in case you wanted to know how far eyecare has come since the 1800’s. These are from and courtesy of  New York ophthalmologist Dr. Stanley B. Burns who has one of the world’s largest collections of early medical photography.

Rodent cancer; In the 19th Century, the cancer now called basal cell carcinoma was known as rodent cancer. That’s because patients with advanced cases, like this woman treated in London in the mid-1800s, looked as if their flesh had been gnawed away by rats. This photograph was published in 1867 in one of the first medical textbooks, “Rodent Cancer.” It was written by Dr. Charles Hewitt Moore (1821-1870). Today it is estimated that 2.8 million people a year will be diagnosed with basal cell Carcinoma. 

Eye tumor; Until the late 1800s, cancerous growths were often left untreated until they were very advanced, as shown in this 1906 photograph. Surgery was a last, desperate resort – after eye patches no longer sufficed. 

This year, an estimated 2,570 adults (1,270 men and 1,300 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with primary intraocular cancer. It is estimated that 240 deaths (130 men and 110 women) from this disease will occur this year. Source

Smallpox; There hasn’t been a case of smallpox in the U.S. since 1949. But between 1900 and 1979, an estimated 300 million to 500 million around the world died of the disease. This photo shows a man infected during an 1881 smallpox epidemic.

Eye abscess; Before the days of antibiotics, sinusitis and minor respiratory infections could lead to abscesses of the eyes. This 1908 photograph shows a man whose abscess has caused his eye to shift downward

Neurofibromatosis; This photograph first appeared in 1871 in the first medical photographic journal. It shows a patient with von Recklinghausen’s disease, a disfiguring hereditary disease now known as neurofibromatosis. There is still no cure for the disease. Patients often have the “fibromas” surgically removed – unless they are too big or too numerous to remove.

Impetigo; Now rare, the bacterial infection known as impetigo was common in the 19th Century. This photo appeared in 1865 in an English textbook on skin disorders. It shows a child with pustules typical of the disease. Impetigo is typically seen in children, often following a cut, abrasion, or insect bite.

Bulging eyes; Hyperthyroidism – the same disorder that causes goiters – can also cause bulging eyes, as shown in this 1908 photograph. As the eyes protrude, the tend to dry out, sometimes resulting in scarring, infection, and blindness. Hyperthyroidism is also known as Grave’s disease.

Civil War bulllet wounds of the eye; During the Civil War, an army surgeon named Dr. Reed Bontecou photographed wounded soldiers. Shown here are photos of a soldier from New York before and after his battlefield wounds to the eyes were treated.


avid R. Templeton, Co A 46 NY, Gunshot Wound, Left Eye (At Time of Admission) David R. Templeton, Co A 46 NY, Gunshot Wound, Left Eye (At Time of Discharge)

Leprosy; This 1867 photograph shows a woman with a form of leprosy known at the time as “elephantiasis des Grecs.” It first appeared in a French medical text published in 1868, “Clinique photographique de l’hospital Saint-Louis.” Three years later, in 1871, this dreaded disease – which affects the eyes and causes enlargement of various parts of the body – was found to be caused by a bacterium.

Worldwide, two to three million people are estimated to be permanently disabled because of leprosy. India has the greatest number of cases, with Brazil second and Burma third. (Wikipedia)


Eye exam by candlelight What’s the best light source for looking inside the eye? Until the end of the 1920s, when the electric “slit lamp” became widely available, candlelight was the best bet – as shown in this 1910 photograph. Examining the interior of the eye made it possible to conquer many eye diseases.




Claire Goldsmith MidPage


  1. Great pictures and I appreciate having been born in today’s age of modern medicine. The anti-vaccine folks really should view these pictures also.

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