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HomemifeatureLabour of Love

Labour of Love

Collectors of optical and ophthalmic antiques have stories to tell about every piece of memorabilia they find, but what compels these enthusiasts to track down rare optical artifacts?

When John Lennon’s iconic orange-tinted glasses were put up for auction in 2007, it was rumoured they sold for about £1 million.

More recently, spirited bidding for tortoiseshell spectacles that once perched on the nose of Winston Churchill saw them sell for more than £11,000. In October last year, the auction of reading glasses worn by Adolf Hitler caused enormous outrage among the global Jewish community.

But behind the headline-grabbing cases about optical wearing famous or infamous people, there is an active community of collectors of all things optical: antique spectacles, early contact lenses, old optical catalogues and textbooks, and ophthalmic and optometric instruments.

…spirited bidding for tortoiseshell spectacles that once perched on the nose of Winston Churchill saw them sell for more than £11,000

It is a specialised field with only about a dozen active collectors of such antiques inAustralia. Some of the official collections rely on donations from elderly optometrists, ophthalmologists and their family members, keen to clear out a cache of long-forgotten, dusty memorabilia.

Other private collectors seek out their finds at auction houses and on the internet – there’s an active community of enthusiasts worldwide, particularly in Europe and America, that regularly trade and deal in optical and ophthalmic artifacts and memorabilia.

The Born Collector

Perth-based Ophthalmologist Professor Ian McAllister has an impressive collection of “probably between 300-400” ophthalmoscopes – a result of more than two decades of work.

“If you ask my wife, she would say I was born collecting! I started collecting scientific and optical instruments. Like many collectors, I started out with a broad base and it became more focused as my interest matured,” Dr. McAllister said.

His area of interest is now so narrow, he knows of no other collectors with the same interest inAustralia.

“Electronic media is fantastic for this type of collecting. I keep in contact with others who collect or deal. There are a few websites and various groups – mainly people who have a commercial interest – there are a few dealers that deal in antique scientific instruments, mainly inEuropeandAmerica.”

Prof. McAllister said he travels regularly to present at conferences on his research specialty of retinal vascular disease, and always tries to create opportunities to “hunt out” dealers and view interesting collections while overseas.

Researching the stories behind the ophthalmoscopes in his collection is often time-consuming and difficult.

“After the invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1851, there was an explosion of different models and styles. In the first few years a lot of these advances were made in Europe so most of these instruments can be found in those countries.”

He said there are a lot of rare ophthalmoscopes from the Victorian era, when it was a status symbol of sorts for ophthalmologists to produce their own specially-modified instruments.

“There are a lot of interesting stories behind these instruments. I‘ve got a number of fairly rare or odd ones. As a collector of these instruments, you tend to end up with a whole series of ophthalmoscopes that no-one else has, because there are only a handful of each model in existence.”

Despite their rarity, collectors don’t go into such a specialised field for the money.

“The more common instruments you can pick up on eBay for about AUD$40-50. Some of the ultra-rare and very early ones are worth many thousands of dollars but it is a very variable thing – if you want to sell you have to wait until someone with an interest is willing to purchase,” Prof. McAllister said.

The Accidental Collector

Donald Ezekiel, founder of Gelflex Laboratories, describes himself as “an old squirrel who collects things”. He started his collection when working with some of the greats of the contact lens industry.

“I guess I started when I worked with Josef Dallos. He was one of the pioneers of contact lenses and the British Contact Lens Association has an award named after him. He talked me into working with contact lenses and I kept a lot of the lenses from those days. I knew Dr. Norman Bier (a developer of fenestrated scleral and corneal contact lenses) as one of my lecturers… I called him and told him that I didn’t have any of his lenses for my collection. He had just given his collection to theCollege ofOptometry, which had established the Norman Bier Collection, but had some spares. He said if I had dinner with him, he would give them to me. So I flew toLondon, had dinner with him, and he gave them to me.

“I travelled a lot as a younger man and everywhere I’d go, I’d ask about old lenses.”

Mr. Ezekiel said his collection – some of which is on display at Gelflex’s Perthheadquarters – is mainly contact lenses, “some old manufacturing equipment” and a number of fitting sets. He estimates he has “quite a few hundred” items in his collection.

“People have these things and no-one wants them so they take them to an auction house and that’s where I find them. They often appear on eBay. I remember some particularly vigorous bidding on eBay for a particular sclera lens. I won the auction and the next day I got an email from a man I know in theU.S.saying: ‘You’re the one that beat me to it, aren’t you?’

“I’ve got a name for being a collector now and people ring me up and offer me things they’ve found.”

Now 75 and in the process of retiring, Mr. Ezekiel is wondering what to do with his collection, but hopes it will remain intact.

“There are some big labs in the world – Luxottica and Zeiss for example – that have beautiful museums attached to them with frames etc., but nothing with contact lenses. I’d like to think someone would take it on and display them,” Mr. Ezekiel said.

The Curator

Like Prof. McAllister, retired Melbourne Optometrist Michael Aitken’s interest in optical antiques has changed over time. But rather than narrow his focus, Mr. Aitken’s early passion – the collection of early ophthalmic books – has broadened and he is now one of the volunteer co-curators of theCyril Kett Optometry Museum and Archive in theAustralian College of Optometry inMelbourne. The museum is open, by appointment, to members of the College and general public.

“We have a very small budget so we do buy a few items – we rely much more on donations,” said Mr. Aitken, who donated his own personal book collection, which includes books dating from the late 17th century, to theKett Museum and Archive.

As well as the library archive, the Museum showcases ophthalmic and optical instruments dating from the 19th century, and spectacles, spectacle lenses and cases dating from the 18th century. It also houses archival papers, drawings, photographs and other memorabilia on the history of optometry inAustralia.

The Museum has an impressive website (museum.aco.org.au) that even allows an online search of the archive.

Mr. Aitken said there’s often an element of luck in uncovering the artifacts housed in the museum. One of his favourite exhibits made its way to the museum a couple of years ago.

“A man locally gave us some early catalogues of optical instruments. They were of no interest to him, so he brought them down to us thinking we might want them.

“They were about 100 years old. The man who gave them to us was the grandson of an optometrist and he found them in the back shed of a house he’d inherited,” Mr. Aitken said. “They’re very interesting and really significant.

Collecting History

Prof. McAllister said one of his favourite pieces is one of his oldest: a Beale ophthalmoscope from the Victorian era.

Until 1851, ophthalmologists had been unable to adequately explain certain eye conditions that led to loss of vision. The invention of the ophthalmoscope by Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) changed that. Helmholtz’s ophthalmoscope – which used a flickering candle as a light source – and the exquisitely crafted variations that followed – allowed ophthalmologists to diagnose and explain diseases “that hitherto had been obscured by the impenetrable black hole of the pupil”.1

Professor McAllister said his prized ophthalmoscope was made by Lionel Beale (1828–1906). Beale’s ophthalmoscope, announced in 1869, was remarkable in that it had an attached oil lamp. This was a significant advance in this era, as the light for illuminating the retina was usually reflected from a candle or other light source and was often dim.

Discovering an interesting antique is one thing, unearthing its story is another, Prof. McAllister said.

“Finding out about some of these pieces is often difficult. They were often made by request and so they were never really written up in journals.”

Sometimes, clues are found in old catalogues. “Sometimes they have a little bit about the instruments, or a name associated with a piece, and then you follow that up.”

If this research draws a blank, there’s always the community of collectors to draw on. Prof.McAllister says images
are often exchanged with overseas collectors, in a bid to find out about
more obscure items.


1. R. Keeler, Antique ophthalmic instruments and books: the Royal College Museum, British Journal of Ophthalmology, available online: http://bjo.bmj.com/content/86/6/602.full.