• Lunch with a Legend: The Time I Met Ophthalmic Historian Burton Chance


    Burton Chance, MD (1868-1965), the prolific historian of 19th century American ophthalmology, was born on Jan. 30, 1868. In 1964, when Dr. Chance was 96 years old and had withdrawn from most ophthalmic and social contacts, due to failing health, I was privileged to have lunch with him. During the ensuing couple of hours, Dr. Chance reminisced about his student days in the University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine.  

    The year Dr. Chance was born, the U.S. Senate was then preparing for its impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson; Jesse James was robbing banks in Missouri; and the typewriter and spring tape measure were patented that year. American ophthalmology took root in the 19th century. Dr. Chance devoted much of his career to taking its measure and recording its history, as well as participating in its early development.

    After finishing high school in Philadelphia, Dr. Chance went directly to medical school, which at that time had a three-year curriculum. Here, he was inspired by one of his teachers, William Fisher Norris, Penn’s first professor of ophthalmology and one of the founders of American ophthalmology. He described his subsequent collegial association with Norris as his assistant in Penn’s eye dispensary.

    Dr. Chance said he celebrated his graduation from medical school by signing on to the crew of a five-masted schooner and sailing to Africa and back. His life-long interest in sailing was stimulated by two maternal uncles who were sea captains. Both were also color blind; this was the source of his intense interest in color blindness. He contributed numerous articles on this subject, as well as many reports concerning tumors of the eye and orbit.

    During our lunch, he also spoke of his childhood friendship with Squier Littell, one of the four founding surgeons of the Hospital for the Relief of the Indigent Blind and Lame (Wills Eye), his own residency at Wills Eye in 1895 and his rise to be a chief surgeon there 20 years later.

    He could recall the early days when the same Wills Eye surgeons who did orthopedic surgery for the “lame” also performed eye surgery for the “blind.” Dr. Chance recounted contributing his “Short Studies on the History of Ophthalmology” (a predecessor of Charles Snyder’s Our Ophthalmic Heritage) to Herman and Arnold Knapp’s Archives of Ophthalmology and of serving as a consulting editor to Edward Jackson at the American Journal of Ophthalmology.

    I was an ophthalmology resident at the time of our meeting and as part of the celebration of PennMed’s bicentennial, was working with Harold Scheie on a history of Philadelphia ophthalmology. In the research for our book, we had used Dr. Chance’s book and articles and the archival collections which he had donated to the Philadelphia College of Physicians, the National Museum of Health and Medicine, and the American Ophthalmological Society. However, Dr. Chance’s personal memories of people and events that he spoke of at our lunch added an additional dimension to the dry facts and accounts we had collected.

    Arthur Keeney, MD (1920-1998), a former head of Wills Eye and a student of ophthalmic history ranked Dr. Chance as one of the “great triumvirate of ophthalmic histographers,” the other two being Julius Hirschberg (1843-1925) of Berlin and Robert Rutson James (1881-1964) of London. Chance’s little book on the history of our specialty, entitled simply Ophthalmology, was published in 1939 and reprinted in 1962. It is still available in libraries and from the used book market, and is a concise and well-written introduction to the subject.