Opinion: “A comparative view of ophthalmology is, to me at least, at the same time awe-inspiring and humbling. Casey Wood found it just the same” - Veterinary Practice
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Opinion: “A comparative view of ophthalmology is, to me at least, at the same time awe-inspiring and humbling. Casey Wood found it just the same”

I left you last month with a hint that I might tell you more about one of my heroes, Casey Wood (Figure 1). 2017 marks a century since the publication of his key work on the avian eye, of which more later. Wood was born in Ontario in 1856 and studied medicine at McGill University in Montreal. It was at this early stage that his passion for ophthalmology began. But even from childhood, his second passion, for nature study and particularly ornithology, took root in the wild spaces of rural Ontario.

Together, ophthalmology and ornithology would guide Wood through his life. Having no children, he, his wife Emma and their pet parrot John Paul toured the globe after his retirement in 1906, collecting material for his magnum opus The Fundus Oculi of Birds, Especially as Viewed by the Ophthalmoscope. Just look at the superb drawing of the retina of an owl (Figure 2), one of hundreds in the atlas.

Wood spent months at London Zoo examining the eyes of the hundreds of birds there. This was not just a work arising from a general ornithological interest.

Wood considered that the superior optics and visual capability of many birds when compared with the human eye might lead to discoveries which would improve human vision. These ideas continue today; my particular interest in avian ophthalmology arises from the same issues.

We might think that humans – and thus human eyes – must be at the pinnacle of evolution. Yet at the same time we use phrases such as ‘eagle-eyed’, showing how much better a visual acuity these birds of prey have compared with our eyes.

▲ FIGURE 1 Casey Wood was a key figure in comparative ophthalmology

And while we see in three colours and might consider ourselves above our dogs and cats seeing in only two, all birds – and bees and beetles too – see in ultraviolet as well as red, green and blue.

A comparative view of ophthalmology is, to me at least, at the same time aweinspiring and humbling. Casey Wood found it just the same.

Wood was described as ‘one of the most colourful and outstanding figures in ophthalmology at the turn of the century, nationally and internationally’, writing scores of books and articles including his 17-volume American Encyclopedia of Ophthalmology. But more than that, Wood was fascinated with the history of ophthalmology and, of course, comparative ophthalmology.

▲ FIGURE 2 Drawing of an owl retina

A masterpiece is his translation of the earliest printed book on ophthalmology, De Oculis Eorumque Egritudinibus et Curis, written by the 12th-century physician, Benvenuto Grassi. Wood liked to show how advanced ophthalmologists were even in that era, with their limited equipment.

Travelling widely in pursuit of his ornithological interest, he collected specimens in British Guiana, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, India, Ceylon, Australia and New Zealand. Wood spent much of his last decade at the Vatican Library in Rome, immersed in the translation of mediaeval European and Arabic ophthalmic manuscripts.

From a political perspective, Wood held views with which we would not agree – he was an ardent fascist, supporting Mussolini in the 1930s. But he had progressive views on the importance of holding the benefits of animal experimentation to human medicine in balance with animal welfare.

These opinions stemmed from his interest both in human medicine and in environmental conservation, developed in his early childhood in the fields around his home in Ontario. Today having such a broad range of interests might be seen as a diversion from focusing on a specific line of research, but Wood shows how valuable a broad view of life can be.

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