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Significant progress by British practitioners in this field was usually indicative of their willingness to learn from those nations whose soldiers opposed their own on the battlefield.
The technique for cataract extraction, for example, had been developed by a French surgeon, Jacques Daviel (1696-1792), who first reported on his new procedure to the French Academy of Surgery on November 15, 1752 (Blodi 168).
A surgeon might have elected only to “couch” the cataract: that is, to insert a lancet or needle into the lens clouded by the “cataract”–an opacification of the lens that blocks the entry of light through it and thus causes loss of vision–and then simply push the lens down or backwards, into the vitreous-filled cavity of the eye.
This procedure allowed light to enter the eye through the pupil and reach the retina, so that the patient could see.
By the Middle Ages, it was considered such a simple operation that anyone could do it.
Barbers did it; monks did it; traveling quacks did it. 1.) The biggest problem with the operation was that the clouded lens might rise again, move back into its normal position, and the patient would lose the sight that had been regained.
And a fourth group did it because they had bad results due to prejudice or clumsiness” (qtd. All of these factors continued to function in British ophthalmological politics and practice for at least a century after Daviel’s report on his revolutionary procedure.
Despite the general opprobrium attached to specialization, an increasing number of British surgeons began to specialize in the eye and its diseases from the first years of the nineteenth century, even daring to call themselves “oculists.” (The terms “ophthalmology” and “ophthalmologist” were not in regular use until after the mid-point of the century [Davidson 314 n5]).
Throughout the nineteenth century, most important advances in the treatment and prevention of blindness were made by French, German and Austrian physicians.
The “newest” form of such surgery, cataract extraction (developed more than a century before) and the oldest, couching (more than 2,000 years old), were both being performed by British surgeons around the mid-point of the Victorian era.
Ophthalmology was one of the first specializations to become a respectable profession in British medicine, but its greatest successes—such as the cure of blindness caused by cataracts—were achieved by those willing to adopt innovative surgical techniques and new medical treatments largely developed elsewhere.
“Belladonna—a virulent poison—was first applied, twice, in order to expand the pupil—this occasioned very acute pains for only about five seconds—The feeling, under the operation—which lasted fifteen minutes, was of a burning nature—but not intolerable—as I have read is generally the case, in surgical operation.
When Brontë decided to have surgery done to cure his blindness, more than one surgical method was in use in Britain.