American Medical Biographies/Knapp, Jacob Hermann

Knapp, Jacob Hermann (1832–1911)

Jacob Hermann Knapp, a New York ophthalmologist and otolaryngologist, founder of the Ophthalmic and Aural Institute at New York, founder and for a long time one of the editors of the "Archiv fur Augen—und Ohrenheilkunde," and inventor of numerous ophthalmic and aural instruments, was born of wealthy parents, March 17, 1832, at Dauborn, Hesse Nassau, Germany, his father being Johann Knapp, member of the German Reichsrath. For a time the subject of this sketch desired to be a poet, but, later, at his father's request, he turned his attention to medicine, especially ophthalmology. After the usual training in the humanities, be began to study medicine in 1851, the very year in which the newly-discovered ophthalmoscope was announced to a slowly attentive world. After a number of years at Munich, Wurzburg, Berlin, Leipsic, Zürich, and Giessen, he received his degree in 1854 at the university last mentioned. He then proceeded to study ophthalmology at Paris, London, Utrecht, and Heidelberg, at length becoming assistant to A. von Graefe. In 1860 he qualified as privatdocent for ophthalmology in Heidelberg, and, five years later, was appointed full professor of the subject. He was also founder of the first University Eye Clinic in Heidelberg. His numerous scientific contributions of this period were published in Von Graefe's Archives.

For three years only, however, he filled the Heidelberg chair, for, in 1868, at the age of thirty-six he removed to New York City, where he at once founded a private clinic for diseases of the eye and ear. This clinic was shortly afterward incorporated as the Ophthalmic and Aural Institute. It was open to rich and poor alike, and became the greatest institution of its kind this side the Atlantic.

In 1882 Knapp became professor of ophthalmology at the Medical Department of the University of the City of New York—a position which he held till 1888—when he accepted the like chair in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Medical Department of Columbia University. In 1903 he was made emeritus professor at this institution.

For the last few years of his life, Professor Knapp, who had always been vigorous and energetic, began to feel that his powers were failing. He, therefore, like the calm, courageous person that he was, began to set his house in order, preparing for the great journey of no return. He died of pneumonia at his country residence, Mamaroneck, New York, May 1, 1911, being 79 years of age.

A fund was established by the Section of Ophthalmology of the American Association that is known as "The Hermann Knapp Testimonial Fund." This fund, each year, supplies an honorarium "to any member of the section or to any distinguished man who comes before the section, as its guest, by special invitation of the officers and executive committee of the section, and presents an especially meritorious and valuable address or thesis bearing on ophthalmic practice." An appropriate sum raised by voluntary subscriptions is further set aside each year for a period of five years, for the purpose of procuring a suitable bust of Dr. Hermann Knapp, the bust to be placed in a location selected by a committee representing the section.

Knapp was a medium-sized man, of firm and elastic carriage, in fact of a somewhat military bearing. His beard was blonde, till grizzled by the years; his complexion florid; and his eyes (as the writer remembers them) like clear blue stones. There was always a faint suggestion of a smile in the corners of his mouth—a trait which shows in his portraits. He would often speak out quickly and impatiently. Even then, however, he almost always followed any retort or rebuke by something of a kindlier nature, and the writer has never known of any one who took a deep and abiding offense at even the sharpest words of Hermann Knapp.

As an operator, Knapp was deliberate and yet rapid, as accurate as a fine machine, and the very acme of coolness and steadiness. There was, too, a methodical economy about his operations that made them seem like masterpieces of fine art; never a stroke too many, not even a superflous turning of a finger. As a teacher he was quiet, terse, unobtrusively illuminating. A trace of German accent served merely to pique the attention of his hearers. A master of ophthalmologic history, he employed his colossal knowledge of the deeply respected past with the greatest care and good judgment, bringing it in by bits, not by wearisome cartloads, and only where it had some practical application; where, for example, it set a finer point upon some sentence, or afforded a useful contrast to the methods in use at the present day. As an editor, he was cautious, accurate and painstaking, intolerant of bluster and of brag, of slipshod statement, or loose, inaccurate English. As an inventor of opthalmic instruments, Knapp stood at the head of the list in this country. Who does not at once recall Knapp's improved lid forceps, permitting bloodless operations on the lid; Knapp's roller forceps for the treatment of trachoma, Knapp's needle-knife for the discission of secondary cataract and the division of incarcerated capsule, Knapp's head-rest for the Helmholtz ophthalmometer, Knapp's ophthalmotrope, his ophthalmoscope, his apparatus for demonstrating the course of the rays in astigmatism, his ocular speculum, his cystotome, his operating chair? And the salient quality of each and every one of Knapp's contrivances was this, practicality.

In fact there was very little fuss-and-feathers about Hermann Knapp, no ostentation, no parade. Straight to the point he went, and there an end. Hence he would never listen to a proposal for any kind of dinner, testimonial, or celebration in his honor. Then, too, I am told the following in a private letter by Dr. James A. Spalding, of Portland, Me. "He told me about 1878 that he came to New York with a big pile of letters from all over Europe to leading New York Germans. 'But,' said he, 'when I sighted New York bar and knew that I was near the second largest German city in the world, I tore to bits every letter that I had and cast them into the waters. I hired a house, rented my Institute, and went to work; an utter stranger. In my first year I made $500, in the second $2,000, and, after that, I went up as high as $20,000, and, still later, much higher.'"

Another striking quality of the personality of Knapp was his untiring industry, his absolute thoroughness, and many are the stories that are told in illustration of this characteristic. The character of Hermann Knapp was absolutely free from jealousy or envy. Yet the competition, or rather, emulation, between the Ophthalmic and Aural Institute (conducted by Knapp) and the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary (conducted by the almost equally celebrated Noyes) was intense in the extreme.

A salient trait of the Doctor was generosity. Hospitality, money, kindly assistance of various sorts, were always to be had by fellow ophthalmologists from the gruff, short-spoken, but tender-hearted Knapp. Who can estimate the value of this man's services to the poor of greater New York—services given with a kind of joyous enthusiasm for more than forty years, wholly without money and without price? And who can appraise those still more enthusiastic and even more inestimable services which Knapp for so long rendered as a teacher of teachers, a shaper and developer of operators and writers? Though he himself is gone, his influence is widening.

A complete bibliography of Hermann Knapp would include about 300 titles. For the Archives alone, he wrote some hundred and fifty articles, while more than fifty important contributions from his pen were published in the transactions of the American Ophthalmological and Otological societies. A farily complete bibliography of his ophthalmic writings, as well as a fuller sketch of Knapp himself, may be found in the American Encyclopedia of Ophthalmology, vol. ix, pp. 6850–6860.

Forty-fourth Annual Report of the N. Y. Ophthalmic and Aural Institute, 1913.
Annals of Oph., vol. v, 1898, pp. 873–874; Oct., 1899, p. 624; April, 1902; April, 1910, p. 399; Oct., 1904.
The Ophthalmoscope, June, 1910, and June, 1911.
Trans. Amer. Oph. Soc., vol. xii, pt. iii, pp. 687–693. Portrait.
Ophthalmology, July, 1911, p. 727.
Amer. Jour. Oph., vol. xxxviii, 1911, pp. 156–157 157.
Private sources.