Theses Doctoral

Dissecting Sight: The Eye and the Art of Medicine in Early Modern Germany, 1500–1700

Zhao, Wenrui

In the period between 1500 to 1700 in Europe, comprehension of the eye’s anatomy, physiology, and pathology significantly expanded, and the relationship between the human eye and knowledge was also fundamentally reformulated. This dissertation tells the story of this transformation through the intersection between medicine and art, and via the eyes and hands of a group of medical and artisanal practitioners in the German speaking lands. From the sixteenth century onwards, an increasing number of people from diverse social classes and professions were engaged in investigating the structure, workings, and disorders of the eye, including surgeons, artisans, physicians, and natural philosophers. Manifold ways of knowing formed ophthalmic knowledge, from practical making and doing to theoretical construction.

The understandings and findings were communicated through a wide range of media, not only in texts, but also frequently via images and objects, such as illustrated books, anatomical models, prostheses, and optical devices. They were widely circulated across Europe and collected by scholars, amateurs, and princely rulers alike. Surgeons and artisans were among the most notable yet understudied groups of investigators in this endeavor. They shared expertise in materials, proficiency in manual work, and modes of investigating nature through bodily engagement. With their close collaboration to create pictures and artifacts, they were instrumental in developing insights about the eye. Their image- and object-making put forward a persistent claim about the value of their embodied and experiential knowledge, through which these practitioners undermined the traditional hierarchy of professional structures and scholarly knowledge systems. Knowledge of the eye not only constituted a critical branch of artistic and medical investigation, but was also of wider cultural and epistemological significance. To understand the structure and function of the eye was to reflect on the very foundation of knowledge.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Smith, Pamela H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 10, 2022