From century-old streak retinoscope to text-books, this museum has eye-popping wonders. Serena Josephine M. on the visual treat it offers and the need to maintain it better

For more than 90 years now, Chennai is home to a collection of century-old ophthalmic artefacts and archives. The Eye Museum at the Elliot’s School of Ophthalmology is a storehouse of century-old ophthalmic equipment, hand drawn pictures of patients, hand-written case registers and German porcelain eye models.

Established in 1921, the museum is housed inside the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology and Government Ophthalmic Hospital, Egmore, which was started in 1819 and is one of the oldest eye hospitals in the world. Lt. Col. R.E. Wright, who was the superintendent of the hospital from 1920 to 1938, had set up the museum to preserve the legacy for posterity.

Though the museum reflects the past glory of ophthalmology, today it stands in need of regular upkeep and better display of the artefacts and archives.

“The eye museum is not only special to Chennai but also to the entire world. It has ophthalmic equipment used 100 years ago and showcases the teaching practices in ophthalmology at a time when there was no technology. We have eye models made in Germany that are replicas of eye diseases. These models were used for teaching students,” V. Velayutham, retired director of the institute said.

He was instrumental in renovating the museum in 1982 as assistant professor at the institute along with Dr. J. Chidambaram.

Handwritten case registers dating back to 1890s and century-old textbooks on various topics of ophthalmology find place in the museum. “These records contain detailed history and show how people meticulously maintained such records,” he added.

Diagnostic, surgical equipment and optical devices used a century ago are on display. These include old slit lamps, keratometer, ophthalmometer and streak retinoscope.

In fact, hand drawn pictures of patients at a time when there was no photography come as an interesting display at the museum. The drawings clearly depict the diseases. “The artists used to sit next to the surgeon and sketch the patients. This was preserved for teaching purposes,” Dr. Velayutham said.

Intraocular foreign bodies removed at the hospital during 1960s, specimens of rare and common eye diseases are also on display. The museum is in dire need of proper maintenance. Some of the books and records belonging to the 19 and early 20 century have been displayed on top of each other in glass cases. Some of the labels on the specimens have faded with time.

The museum, itself, is filled with dust. “In 2008, the old portraits, textbooks and records were refurbished. Then, we had planned to hand over the museum to the government museum but it did not materialise. The museum should be maintained properly and the government should spend time and money to refurbish it,” he mentioned. A senior authority of the hospital said there should be a separate fund for maintaining the museum.

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