Emerson’s Eyes

Louisa Thomas

Fall 2017

In the spring of 1825, a month after moving into a room in Cambridge and registering for Harvard Divinity School, Ralph Waldo Emerson began to lose his sight. He was not blind, but his vision was impaired enough that reading and study were impossible. It seems likely that Emerson’s condition was diagnosed as rheumatic inflammation, and that the root cause was tuberculosis—the disease that had afflicted his father, killed two of his brothers, took his wife, and ended the life of his protégé, Henry David Thoreau. Nearly one third of all deaths in Boston, in fact, were from the disease, which was incurable at the time but whose symptoms could be managed. Emerson visited Boston’s leading eye doctor, Dr. Edward Reynolds, who recommended surgery.  

Dr. Reynolds had trained in England under James Wardrop, who developed a procedure for relieving inflammation of the eye by puncturing the cornea with a cataract knife or couching needle. The knife was then twisted slightly, to keep the cornea from closing, and allowing the aqueous humor that had built up to drain through the small hole. It was a simple procedure, relatively safe and painless, though it was designed to bring only temporary relief and to be repeated as necessary. Emerson underwent the procedure twice, once that spring and once in the fall.  

Louisa Thomas is the author of two books, most recently Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. She is a contributor to the New Yorker's website.

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