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Museum & History of Ophthalmology

The RCOphth Museum

At 18 Stephenson Way, there are over 200 museum pieces on display, many in the bespoke cabinet donated by The Oxford Ophthalmological Congress. The museum consists of a wide collection of ophthalmic and surgical instruments dating from the 18th century.

The antiquarian books, numbering over 600, go even further back to the early part of the 17th century. The collections are not open to the public but can be viewed by appointment. The Honorary Curator welcomes enquiries on any aspect of the history of ophthalmology.

The collections have largely been built up over the years through donations. Offers of equipment and books are welcome but with limited space only items that fill an important gap in the collections can be accepted.

Short History of Ophthalmology

It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that ophthalmology began to be recognised as a speciality in its own right in the United Kingdom.

Until then operations on the eye, mainly for cataract, had been performed by general surgeons and it had a poor reputation. In addition the situation was not been helped by itinerant “oculists” who practiced their art on an unsuspecting public, the best known of these being the quack John Chevalier Taylor.

In 1805 John Cunningham Saunders founded the first specialist eye hospital.

This was to become known as Moorfields. Both he and his successor Benjamin Travers established ethical standards that enabled ophthalmology to become a respected profession.

Mention has already been made of Sir William Bowman and the founding of the Ophthalmological Society of the United Kingdom in 1880. This was an enormously important event. For the first time ophthalmologists had a central organisation that provided a platform for learning through meetings and the presentation of papers. Bowman’s influence was not confined to the UK. He was an international figure who with Frans Donders, Albrecht von Graefe and Hermann von Helmholtz’s, through the invention of the ophthalmoscope, accelerated beyond measure the progress of the ophthalmological profession.

Undoubtedly the use of anaesthetics and Lister’s sterilisation of instruments and the operative area were the most significant advances in surgery in the 19th century and ophthalmology was to benefit greatly from these discoveries.

Ophthalmologists today only have to look at the display of 19th century instruments the College’s collection to see how far the profession has come since those days.