In the mid-1800s, the inner workings of the human eye were as remote and undiscovered as the surface of the moon. Our artist, Richard Liebreich (1830-1917), was an assistant to the German physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz, at the time he invented the ophthalmoscope, a handheld device used to examine the interior structures of the eye including the retina. Von Helmholtz’s invention meant the uncharted territory of the eye could now be explored, for the very first time.
It was now that Richard Liebreich stepped forward with his The Atlas of Ophthalmoscopy (1863). Just at the right time, he offered up the medical profession the means to examine an understand a living human retina. His Atlas both championed and leveraged the technological potential of Von Helmholtz’s ophthalmoscope, whilst also offering a brilliant guidebook for to help identify and treat fundus disease. He also devised his own ophthalmoscope, improving upon Helmholtz’s original design.
An exceptional artist, Liebreich made his own paintings from which the brilliantly coloured chromolithographs for the Atlas were made. When it was unleashed on the medical world in 1863, the uniquely vivid and detailed Atlas met with great enthusiasm.
Liebreich practiced medicine in Paris (from 1862) and London (from 1870), where he was head of ophthalmology at Saint Thomas Hospital. As a physician in Paris he performed a successful operation on the mother-in-law of emperor Napoléon III. He did the first work in genetics in ophthalmology, studying pigmentary retinitis in a single extended family. When he retired from medicine, he moved back to Paris and worked as a sculptor and painter. Sadly, none of his work from this period survives.
The Atlas der Ophthalmoscopie didn’t only helped increase human understanding of the eye. It also hands down to us another important gift. Stunning, unintentional abstract art.
Credits : Wellcome Collection; Garrison-Morton, Heirs of Hippocrates 1967; Science Museum