Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/January 1884/Defective Eye-Sight



DETERIORATION of the eye has been, for many years, a topic of complaint—not only in the United States, but in Europe. In Germany, after a careful examination of the pupils in a public school, a surgeon has reported that the proportion of normal-sighted children is gradually less as the ages of the subjects advance: being thirty-six per cent in the primary classes to ninety per cent in the highest classes. Another German investigator reports that, from an examination embracing ten thousand children, it was found that the number of short-sighted in the elementary classes was from five to eleven per cent; in the higher school for girls, the proportion was from ten to twenty-four per cent; in the Realschulen, it was between twenty and forty per cent; in the gymnasia, between thirty and fifty per cent; and in the highest classes of all, between thirty-five and eighty-eight per cent. In an examination of six hundred students of theology at Tübingen, it was found that seventy-nine per cent suffered from myopia.

Similar examinations made in the schools of France and of England exhibit similar results, showing that the organ of sight grows weaker as the term of study grows longer. In the United States, examination proves the same facts. In Philadelphia, a committee of physicians of the Medical Society examined, with the ophthalmoscope, the eyes of four thousand children in the public schools, and their report exhibits similar conclusions. In San Francisco, the Department Superintendent of the Public Schools asserts that, of the pupils who enter the public schools at the eighth grade, and work their way up to the high-school, fully forty per cent are afflicted with one or another form of myopia. Dr. Agnew shows, in a recent report on the progress of near-sightedness in this country, that "our school-rooms are the factors most directly influential in the gradual and increasing development of a race of spectacle-using people." Dr. Derby, Dr. Seguin, and many other scientific philanthropic gentlemen, have uttered similar opinions. Professor Calhoun, of the Atlanta Medical College, says, on this subject, that in the interior of the eye there is an elastic muscle, called the ciliary muscle (circumscribing that aperture through which light is conveyed to the retina), by which the sight is graduated to different distances. In a normal eye, the contractions and expansions of this muscle are not noticed by us; but in a near-sighted or over-sighted eye these changes are violent and some-times painful; and, eventually, the action of this muscle is spasmodic and so weakened that the sight is permanently injured. Near-sightedness, he remarks, seldom begins until the sixth year, when children commence using the eye on school-books. There are records of the examinations of the eyes of forty-five thousand school-children, of all ages and grades, white and colored, and it has been proved that near-sightedness increases, from class to class, until, in the highest grades, it has actually been developed in as many as sixty or seventy per cent of all the scholars. I saw, lately, in the "Baltimore Sun," that a studious little girl in a public school in that city was struck with blindness at her desk, just after finishing her reading-lesson.

The causes to which this deterioration of eye-sight has been attributed are alleged to be cross-lights from opposite windows, light shining directly on the face, insufficient light, small types, and to the position of the desk, forcing the scholar to bend over and bring the eyes too close to the book or writing-paper, etc.

But, were all these defects remedied, the integrity of the eye would not be restored nor its deterioration prevented. The chief causes of the evil would still remain. These are the colors of the paper and ink. White paper and black ink are ruining the eye-sight of all reading nations. The "rays of the sun," says Lord Bacon, "are reflected by a white body, and are absorbed by a black one." No one dissents from this opinion; but, despite these indications of nature and of philosophy, we print our books and write our letters in direct opposition to the suggestions of optical science.

When we read a book printed in the existing mode, we do not see the letters, which, being black, are non-reflective. The shapes reach the retina, but they are not received by a spontaneous, direct action of that organ. The white surface of the paper is reflected, but the letters are detected only by a discriminative effort of the optic nerves. This effort annoys the nerves, and, when long continued, exhausts their susceptibility. The human eye can not long sustain the broad glare of a white surface without injury. The author of "Spanish Vistas," in "Harper's Magazine," says of Cartagena that "blind people seem to be numerous there, a fact which may be owing to the excessive dazzle of the sunlight and the absence of verdure." Mr. Seward, in his tour around the world, observed that "in Egypt ophthalmia is universal," attributing it to the same "excessive dazzle" of the wide areas of white sand; and the British soldiers, in the late campaign in that country, exhibited symptoms of the same disease. In the Smithsonian Report for 1877 it is stated, in a paper on "Color-Blindness," that "M. Chevreul has produced 14,420 distinguishable tints of the elementary colors, from which the paper-manufacturers could select colors more agreeable to the eye than the dazzling white, so weakening and lacerating to the nerves of that delicate organ." We know, too, that the Esquimaux, wandering over their snowy plains, and the Arabs, roving over their sandy deserts, are afflicted with inflammation of the eyes, which often results in blindness. I once rode for hours over a Western snow-covered prairie, and experienced the wearisome and irritating glare; and, had my ride been continued longer, I might have found myself in the condition of the gentleman described in the "Cheyenne (Wyoming Territory) Leader," of April 17th ult., as follows: "Ex-Governor John W. Hoyt was brought home in yesterday's coach from the north suffering from snow-blindness. He left Cheyenne on Thursday, and on Friday traveled all day over the snow while the sun shone brightly upon it. The Governor suffered greatly from pain in the eyes in the evening, and at length became totally blind. He has not been able to use his eye-sight since. His physician, Dr. Gray, expresses the belief that the Governor will recover his sight, but must be kept in a dark room for a week." Lieutenant Danenhower, who lost the use of one of his eyes from the reflection of light from ice and snow in the Arctic Expedition of 1881, is a notable illustration of this subject.

From all these authorities and instances it does not seem unreasonable to substitute some other than the universal color of our paper. What color shall it be? Nature and science declare that it should be green. Green grass covers the ground, and green leaves are our canopy, and no color is so grateful to the eye. Plutarch said, in Demosthenes, "it is universally acknowledged that we are not to abandon the unhappy to their sorrows, but to endeavor to console them by rational discourses, or by turning their attention to more agreeable objects—in the same manner as we desire those who have weak eyes to turn them from bright or dazzling colors to green or to others of a softer kind." And, in his life of Pericles, he says that "green is best suited to the eye by its beauty and agreeableness, and at the same time it refreshes and strengthens the sight." From an old anonymous volume entitled "The Gentleman and Lady instructed," published in London in 1759, I extract the following: "Some authors argue for a providence, from the earth being covered with green rather than with any other color, as being such a right mixture of light and shade that it comforts and strengthens instead of weakening or grieving the eye, and they explain it in this manner: All colors that are more luminous than green overpower and dissipate the animal spirits which are employed in the sight; whereas those that are more obscure do not sufficiently exercise the animal spirits; but the rays which produce in us the idea of green fall upon the eye in such a due proportion that they give the animal spirits their proper play, and, by keeping up the struggle in a just balance, excite a very pleasing and agreeable sensation. But," says the author, "be the cause what it will, we know that its effect is certain." Richerand, the celebrated French physiologist, says, in his chapter on "Sensations": "Green is the softest of colors, the most permanently grateful; that which least fatigues the eyes, and on which they will the longest and most willingly repose. Accordingly, Nature has been profuse of green in the coloring of all plants, and she has, in some sort, dyed of this color the greater part of the surface of the globe." Dr. Thomas Dick, in his work "On the Improvement of Society by the Diffusion of Knowledge," remarks, page 206, section 6: "As the eye is constructed of the most delicate substances, and is one of the most admirable pieces of mechanism connected with our frame, so the Creator has arranged the world in such a manner as to afford it the most varied and delightful gratification. By means of the solar light, which is exactly adapted to the structure of this organ, thousands of objects of diversified beauty and sublimity are presented to the view. It opens before us the mountains, the vales, the woods, the lawns, the brooks and rivers, the fertile plains and flowery fields, adorned with every hue, the expanse of ocean, and the glories of the firmament; and, as the eye would be dazzled were a deep red color or a brilliant white to be spread over the face of Nature, the Divine Goodness has clothed the heavens with blue, and the earth with green—the two colors which are the least fatiguing and the most pleasing to the organs of sight; and, at the same time, one of these colors is diversified by a thousand delicate shades, which produce a delightful variety on the landscape of the world."

Dr. Phene, in a paper read recently by him before a scientific society in Edinburgh, advised the planting of trees in cities; among the beneficial results of which he mentions "the relief to the optic nerve through the eye resting on objects of a green color, and that, as the power of sight is strengthened and sustained by green glasses, a similar advantage would be gained by the presence of the green foliage in the streets." And, finally, that profound philosopher, Swedenborg, says in his "True Christian Religion": "What would color be if only white were given and no black? The quality of the intermediate colors, from any other source, is but imperfect. What is sense without relation? and what is relation but things opposite? Is not the sight of the eye darkened by white alone, and enlivened by green, a color inwardly deriving something from black?"

These authorities and facts are entitled to serious consideration. They are all demonstrative of the positive injury, laceration, and destruction of the sight by the reflective dazzle of white; and to what else can we attribute the steadily increasing myopia of the children in our schools? Why not reform it altogether? Let our books be printed on green paper, and let our printers use red, yellow, or white ink for the noxious black. The reform would be revolutionary, and the interests of the trade would be at first hostile to the change. For thousands of years, from papyrus to superfine glittering note-paper, our eyes have been exposed to the deleterious influences of black and white. The change to green, yellow, and red, or to some other agreeable reflective tints, is eventually certain to take place. Science and common sense will compel it. The substitution can not, probably, be sudden nor immediate, for the stationery world must be turned up-side down in the process: old school-books, blank-books, and writing-books and inks, must be displaced; and publishers and paper-manufacturers will have to adapt their measures to the new dispensation. But, when it is consummated, everybody will rejoice, except the spectacle-makers. The eyes of the scholar and of the student will no longer be wearied with the myopian contrast of black and white, but strengthened and refreshed by congenial colors; and to pore over the pages of a book would be no more fatiguing to the eyes than gazing on a verdant prairie decorated with variously tinted flowers.