That’s from Dr. Johnson’s entry on “cataract” in his Dictionary of the English Language. Ophthalmologically speaking, his definition is imprecise but usefully suggestive, constrained only by the limits of eighteenth-century medical understanding. Compare it with the description given by the website for the hospital where I’ll have cataract surgery performed on Thursday:
“A cataract is a clouding or opaque area over the lens of the eye--an area that is normally transparent. As this thickening occurs, it prevents light rays from passing through the lens and focusing on the retina--the light-sensitive tissue lining located in the back of the eye. This clouding is caused when some of the protein which makes up the lens begins to clump together and interferes with vision.”
Accurate, obviously, but lacking Johnson’s pithiness, reflected also in his definition of “eye”: “The organ of vision; the medium of the sense of sight.” I discovered my cataracts when complaining to the optometrist of my difficulty making out street signs until it was too late to turn. The formal diagnosis: “Cataract, nuclear sclerotic, both eyes.” My cataracts and astigmatism leave me with nearsightedness (myopia). Blessedly, I have no trouble reading or writing, though I’ve worn glasses for half a century and bifocals for more than twenty years. Distance vision is the problem, the reverse of Johnson’s diagnosis. In a fascinating article about Johnson’s eyesight, an exercise in retrospective diagnosis, Graham A. Wilson and Dr. James G. Ravin write in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Ophthalmology:
“Johnson read with the material held very close to his face [see the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds]. His friend Thrale noted that Johnson's wigs were scorched from reading too close to a candle and was seriously afraid that Johnson might burn himself up while reading in bed. According to the sister of the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, Johnson's sight was so poor that he could not distinguish faces half a yard away. Hester Thrale believed his crude eating habits owed something to his poor eyesight. Johnson confirmed as much to Boswell, saying `I am short-sighted, and afraid of bones, for which reason I am not fond of eating many kinds of fish, because I must use my fingers.’’
Johnson was short-sighted in his right eye, with limited peripheral vision in his left – probably the result of the scrofula he suffered as an infant. His vision was poor from childhood, but his handwriting (unlike mine) remained legible and he never wore eyeglasses, though they were readily available in his day. In Samuel Johnson in the Medical World: The Doctor and the Patient (Cambridge University Press, 1991), John Wiltshire suggests that Johnson’s “visual difficulties have been popularly exaggerated,” adding that “references to blindness are part of the mythology surrounding this disabled giant.” To remind us of Johnson’s fallible humanity, Wiltshire writes, alluding to Pride and Prejudice: “Johnson himself spoke frequently of his eye troubles, and one sometimes feels that with this as with some of his other disabilities, he was not beyond what Mr Darcy was to call the `indirect boast.’” Putting Johnson’s vision into realistic perspective, Wiltshire writes:
“No one could have done the amount of reading Johnson did for the Dictionary, as well as supervise the collection, collation, and – presumably – the proof-reading of the quotations without an eyesight which in practice was highly efficient.”
Regardless of mere visual acuity, Johnson was surely gifted with vision that could “pierce each Scene with Philosophic Eye.” He was born on this date, Sept. 18, in 1709, and died on Dec. 13, 1784, at age seventy-five.