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Cumming, William (1822?-1855) (DNB00)


CUMMING, WILLIAM (1822?–1855), the pioneer of modern ophthalmology, was the first to demonstrate that rays of light falling on the human retina might be reflected back to the eye of an observer, and that the fundus of the eye, till then a dark and hidden region, might, under certain conditions of illumination, become visible. This important fact was communicated by him to the Medico-Chirurgical Society of London in June 1846, in a paper ‘On a Luminous Appearance of the Human Eye,’ &c. He never obtained a view of the tissue and vessels of the retina. This was reserved for Helmholtz, who, in a tract of forty-three pages, described his method of viewing these structures by means of a polarising apparatus (‘Beschreibung eines Augenspiegels,’ &c., Berlin, 1851). This was afterwards superseded by a mirror, to which the now familiar name of ‘Ophthalmoscope’ was applied. It underwent many modifications until the whole fundus of the eye, in its healthy and in its morbid state, has been so minutely described and depicted as to be familiar to every medical student.

Cumming was a singularly modest and retiring man, a thoughtful and accurate observer; and had his life been prolonged he would no doubt have further developed his important discovery. He fell into ill health, and died at Limehouse in 1855, aged 33.

[Personal knowledge.]

J. D.