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Museum of Vision Recognizes Presidents’ Day with an Inside Look into the Eyesight Challenges of U.S. Presidents

02/13/2012   08:30:00 AM

American Academy of Ophthalmology program chronicles vision problems of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson

SAN FRANCISCO—We recognize the United States' great presidents as visionaries, but have some of our leaders had trouble seeing – literally? This Presidents' Day, the Museum of Vision, a public service program of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, takes a look at the vision problems of three of the best-known U.S. presidents…Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Abraham "Honest Abe" Lincoln had strabismus, also known as lazy eye. You can see this in some photos or portraits of the 16th president. Lincoln's left eye tended to roll upward, especially when he was tired or excited. News reports of his fiery 1860 presidential election debates with Stephen Douglas describe Lincoln's eye as "rolling wildly" as he spoke. His dominant right eye did most of the work of seeing, especially for near work like reading.

Lincoln's left eye was set slightly higher in his head than his right, and his left eyelid drooped a bit. When he was 10 years old Abe was kicked in the head by a horse, and may have suffered nerve damage that led to a mild paralysis of his eyelid. Lincoln also suffered from double vision (diplopia) at times.

America's 25th president, Theodore Roosevelt, was a Rough Rider and adventurer, and his move into the White House hardly slowed him down. In one of his many boxing matches while president, Roosevelt received a blow to the head that some sources say left him partially blind in his left eye. (Others say earlier injuries caused the damage.) If the tough punch was the culprit, Roosevelt's loss of sight would probably have been due to a detached retina (undiagnosed), say ophthalmology historians. Athletes who play impact sports today can take a lesson from TR, and make sure to use protective eyewear and seek immediate medical care for any eye or head injury.

Woodrow Wilson was shocked to awaken one morning in 1906, seven years before he became the 27th president, and find himself nearly blind in his right eye. He'd suffered a hemorrhage (severe bleeding) in his retina, the sensitive area at the back of the eye that relays images to the brain. Other than resting his eye for several months on orders from his ophthalmologist (Eye M.D.), no real treatment was available in those days. Wilson had high blood pressure, a risk factor for "central retinal vein occlusion," a blockage in the main retinal vein, and this probably caused the bleed and damage, say Eye M.D. historians. Eventually his vision improved some, and though Wilson complained his golf game was never again as good, he seems to have coped fairly well.

Several presidents have had trouble with eye "twitches" or "spasms" or "rapid blinking," conditions that are more likely when a person is under pressure (especially emotional stress) and/or exhausted or sleep-deprived. Given the intense demands of the presidency, it's a wonder these annoying conditions haven't been more common.

For more information on the interesting world of ophthalmic history, visit www.museumofvision.org.

About the American Academy of Ophthalmology
The American Academy of Ophthalmology is the world's largest association of eye physicians and surgeons — Eye M.D.s — with more than 30,000 members worldwide.  Eye health care is provided by the three "O's" – ophthalmologists, optometrists, and opticians. It is the ophthalmologist, or Eye M.D., who can treat it all: eye diseases, infections and injuries, and perform eye surgery.

About The Museum of Vision
The Museum of Vision is an educational program of The Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. It is the only institution in the United States whose sole purpose is to preserve the history of ophthalmology and celebrate its unique contributions to science and health. The Museum of Vision strives to inspire an appreciation of vision science, the ophthalmic professions and contributions made toward preventing blindness. For more information on the Museum of Vision, visit www.museumofvision.org

About EyeSmart/OjosSanos
The American Academy of Ophthalmology’s EyeSmart® public education program educates the public about the importance of eye health and empowers them to preserve their healthy vision, by providing the most trustworthy and medically accurate information about eye diseases, conditions and injuries. OjosSanos is the Spanish-language version of the initiative. The websites (www.geteyesmart.org and www.ojossanos.org) contain comprehensive, physician-reviewed information, supplemented by animations, and videos to help people understand how to keep their eyes healthy and when to see an ophthalmologist (Eye M.D.) about vision problems.

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