Bartisch's Ophthalmodouleia

The first vernacular work exclusively about eyes, from 1583

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One of the most interesting books in the College of Optometrists' Rare and Historical Books Collection is Georg Bartisch’s Oφθαλμοδουλεια (Ophthalmodouleia). This Greek word means 'the service of the eyes', literally 'eye-service', although it can also be translated as 'when the eye is upon you', as in Ephesians 6:6 when it is usually read in the sense of 'under observation'.
Oφθαλμοδουλεια is an important work for several reasons. At a time when most scholarly works were still written in Latin, and the lingua franca of scholars all over Europe, rather than the vernacular, it was written and published in the author’s native German. The work was printed in 1583 by Matthes Stockel of Dresden at Bartisch’s own expense. It was the first systematic work in ocular disease being logically arranged, beginning with the anatomy of the head and eye and progressing to more specific treatments for strabismus, cataracts (distinguishing between the six different types), trachoma, external growths on the lids, injuries and foreign bodies. It is extremely well illustrated, containing 91 full page wood cuts, produced by Hans Hewamaul but thought to be based on Bartisch’s own watercolours. The illustrations cover eye defects, surgical instruments and methods of curing diseases and injuries of the eye. They are very detailed and in several cases use an overlay technique which enables the reader to 'dissect' parts of the head or eye by lifting up successive flaps. The book was intended for the information of both laymen and surgeons and as Daniel M Albert has suggested, its very completeness documents George Bartisch’s right to be styled 'the founder of modern ophthalmology'.


Georg Bartisch was probably born in 1535 in a small town sixteen miles from Dresden. His parents were not well off and lacked sufficient funding to provide Georg with the formal education necessary to become a physician and so at the tender age of 13 he began three apprenticeships to a surgeon, an oculist and a lithotomist. Following the practice of the day he became an itinerant surgeon travelling widely and treating patients in the market place using a combination of scientific knowledge and remedies based on the superstitions which surrounded contemporary medical practice. He developed a substantial following and a reputation for his skill in removing cataracts and surgically treating styes, lachrymal fistulas, ectropion and many other disorders and diseases of the eye. Ironically, he disapproved of spectacles, failing to see how an eye which was already performing efficiently could be improved by putting something in front of it and promoting recipes that would help consumers stave off their use. Despite his scholarly background Bartisch claimed to have witnessed many cases of injuries and diseases of the eye which were the result of magic or even the work of the devil.
Bartisch was an inventor as well as a surgeon and designed many of his own surgical instruments. Perhaps the most dramatic of these was a spoon-shaped knife which he used for the complete removal of a diseased eyeball. In 1588 he became court oculist to August I, the Elector of Saxony, to whom he had dedicated his magnum opus, and continued working in the Dresden area until his death in about 1606.
Georg Bartisch’s  Oφθαλμοδουλεια may have been written in the vernacular to make it accessible to a wider audience but today its intricate black letter printing makes it a daunting prospect even for those readers with relatively fluent German. In 1996 Donald L. Blanchard published his translation of the work as Volume 3 of the  monogram series in the new edition of Julius Hirschberg’s History of Ophthalmology published in Belgium by Jean Paul Wayenborgh which makes the text more easily accessible. This modern translation is produced in the same format and style with the same wonderful woodcuts and layered illustrations.
Copies of both the original 1583 edition, the 17th century reprint (with updated illustrations featuring people in more contemporary dress for the period) and the 1996 translation are all available for reference at the College.