Secret Societies And The Restoration Of Vision

The desire to restore vision, once lost is as old as man itself.

This article by Noah Shachtman in Wired’s Danger Room documents the discovery of a 250 year old code complete with secret society.  Its interesting reading from a variety of perspectives and has some wonderful photographs of the text and “blindfold goggles”, but what piqued my scientific interest was the ritual involving the restoration of sight and the potential evolution of the study of vision.

Sight and the mysteries of how we see is an equally compelling story that has inspired many throughout history to form in groups to discuss and study vision.  The Greek Empedocles in the fifth century BC had his “Emission theory” of vision which evolved through the Aristotle and Galen.  Plato also maintained that the eye possessed an “inner fire”.  But it was not until Alhazen and Leonardo DaVinci that experiments were carried out and documented that we started to establish our understanding of sight.  The Oculists mentioned in this article were thought to be early gatekeepers of the study of ophthalmology who would keep “charlatans” at bay that might cause people to lose their sight.  These Oculists came after William Briggs Theory of Vision and organized themselves into one of the many secret societies that exploded throughout the world in the 18th century, some of which served as safe houses for the discussion of science and religion which did not necessarily fit within popular belief or practice.  Of course modern understanding of vision was due largely to Hermann von Helmoltz in the 19th century which gave us early color theory and perception experiments, but it would be interesting work to follow the study of ophthalmology from the Oculists in the 18th century through Helmhotz work in the 19th century as it appears to be a partially secret history documenting the early study and restoration of vision loss.

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