The Eye at War: American Eye Prosthetics During the World Wars
In December 1943 Colonel Derrick Vail, ophthalmologist and consultant to the Army Medical Department in Europe, wrote in a memo: “There is a critical shortage of artificial eye supply.”1 Vail was referring to the shortage of optical glass traditionally used in the manufacture of prosthetic eyes in wartime. During the Second World War the United States developed a prosthetic acrylic eye program and debated the use of plastic contact lenses all within the larger government eye rehabilitation program. Additionally, at least two dozen Americans offered to have their eyes surgically removed and donated to blinded veterans, prompting many responses from military ophthalmologists. All of this came after the U.S. military faced the grim reality of what modern warfare could do to the human eye.
The U.S. military first encountered the shortage of glass eyes during the First World War. At the time protective eyewear was scarce, and both civilian and military eye injuries were commonplace.2 American soldiers during the war suffered often horrific eye injuries from both battle and disease. Artillery was the most frequent cause of battle casualties, often from metal fragments flying in all directions to splinter the eye. Combined with other factors like disease and even consumption of vision-destroying wood alcohol, over eight hundred American soldiers and sailors suffered blindness of one or both eyes.3 Military eye prosthetics became a necessity.
Prior to the Great War, the German Empire held a near monopoly on the manufacture of glass for optical use in prosthetics, war materials, and objects like microscopes. By 1912 Germany exported just shy of 400,000 pounds of optical glass annually, with roughly 25 percent transported to Britain and the United States. Thus, the allied nations entered the war almost completely dependent on Germany for a strategic material not only for war making, but also for rehabilitative technology.4
By 1917 the U.S. War Department recognized that they were running dangerously short of glass eyes. To remedy the situation, a number of firms began production, largely from scratch, of glass similar to what their German counterparts produced. Scientists manufactured optical glass in Rochester, New York at Bausch & Lomb, one of the largest contact lens companies today, along with the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company and Spencer Lens Company in Buffalo, New York. Within a year scientists produced roughly 650,000 pounds of glass for the war effort.5 Through rehabilitation American soldiers blinded in the military underwent surgical enucleation (removal) of the eye, being fitted with a glass eye often painted to match their remaining eye.
Despite these advances, by the time the Second World War broke out, the Army still hadn’t sufficiently prepared for the eventuality of eye wounds. By 1945 ocular casualties accounted for 14,000 due to disease, 3,000 to injury, and just under 3,000 to battle casualty.6 Ophthalmologists often utilized a tool first introduced during the previous war: the eye magnet. The soldier sat in front of the large magnet that pulled shrapnel out of the eyeball. While some soldiers lost vision in both eyes, more often they lost most or all vision in one eye, and as stories trickled back to the United States, concerned citizens offered aid in a most bizarre fashion.
The image of the blinded veteran of the Second World War triggered sentimental worry among a group of Americans who felt compelled to offer their own eyeballs to “restore vision’ to the heroes of the battlefield. Whether from a rumor or a misguided newspaper article, these men and women thought that a transplanted eyeball could restore sight to someone who had lost their vision. Letters arrived to the Surgeon General and military ophthalmologists offering eyes as a form of patriotism much like rationing or a war bond purchase.
Miss Jean Bryant of Sioux City, Iowa wrote to the War Department in January 1946, “I have wondered for a long time how I would help somehow in the war. I was too young to join any of the armed forces, so I have decided that the only way I could help would be to give one of my eyes to a totally blind veteran.”7 The chief ophthalmologist wrote back commending her sentiment, but assured Bryant that most donor eyes are obtained from still-born infants or individuals whose eyes could be removed shortly after death.8 The letter also assured Bryant that operations like this couldn’t restore eyesight. Still, letters arrived offering eyes. Lawrence Conrad of Michigan wrote, “I am a male citizen, 32 years old, white, and in good physical condition.”9 He, too, wanted to donate.
Adding to the pile of theoretical eyes was Pete Bosalovich. Spending 25 years in the Illinois State Penitentiary, Bosalovich wrote, “I don’t believe that I will have many years left” and wanted to give an eye.10 Henry Vahey, a recently medically discharged veteran, wrote in July 1944 that a blinded Marine he met on the street inspired him. He reasoned that if he couldn’t fight he would donate.11 Evidently, patriotism could be measured in eyes.
Despite all these proposed eyeball donations, the wartime military initiated a new acrylic Artificial Eye Program at Valley Forge General Hospital to remedy the nation’s second shortage of optical glass. Acrylic eyes didn’t just benefit material shortages. Wearers like Louis Haberkamp sought this new technology, as his glass eye often broke in his socket if he walked between rooms of drastically differing temperatures.12 The program at Valley Forge perfected the new acrylic prosthetic eye, offering a more realistic and comfortable eye for the user and a more economical material for the producer.
While the Medical Department was eager to initiate an artificial eye program, it was reluctant to incorporate another new eye technology into military use: the plastic contact lens. While some soldiers lost their sight in battle, many others were denied positions within the military because of poor vision. Major General Norman Kirk offered a policy statement on the question of contact lenses in 1944: “If the vision of subject soldiers cannot be improved with ordinary spectacles… it is recommended that steps be taken to separate him from the service.” The military was of the opinion that plastic lenses were still in an experimental phase.13
Despite the Army’s reluctance to fit soldiers with contact lenses, ophthalmologists from across the country wrote to the Surgeon General to offer their expertise and reassurance. One doctor from Brooklyn offered to fit veterans with lenses, writing of the benefits for correcting vision as well as cosmetic coverage for injured eyes if enucleation hadn’t been completed yet.14 Optometrists from Chicago and Long Island contacted the Army, arguing that lenses were better for soldiers with astigmatism and were ideal for naval personnel in engine rooms because they wouldn’t steam up like glasses. Claud Hall of Long Island wrote, “Let us demonstrate what can be done.”15 As news of the benefits of plastic lenses dispersed, soldiers with visual defects wrote in to be fitted, yet the military did little to change their stance during the war years.
Much like the civilians offering their eyes as sacrifice for the war effort, eye doctors explicitly offered their services to both save soldiers from the pain of war and to send soldiers to war by strapping them with better vision. The story of the eye during hostilities reveals how a body part can embody important meanings at war both of national and international scope, like trade and shortages, and invoke themes like patriotism. The debates over glass and acrylic eyes, the donation of body parts, and the fitting of new ocular technologies hold meaning well beyond the technological and scientific facts of which they were made.
- Derrick Vail Memo, RG 112,, Series 31 (ZI), Box 1357, Folder: Artificial Eye Program, US National Archives. Return to text.
- Katherine Ott, “Hard Wear and Soft Tissue: Craft and Commerce in Artificial Eyes,” in Katherine Ott, David Serlin, and Stephen Mihm, eds., Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics (New York: New York University Press, 2002) 147. Return to text.
- Memorandum on Eye Protection, November 7, 1940, Surgeon General Records. Return to text.
- Stewart Wills, “How the Great War Changed the Optics Industry,” Optics & Phonotics News, January 2016. Return to text.
- Wills, “How the Great War Changed the Optics Industry.” Return to text.
- “Statistics on Ocular Casualties,” March 27, 1945, Office of the Surgeon General. Return to text.
- Miss Jean Bryant to the War Department, January 29, 1946, RG 112, Series 31 (ZI), Box 1367, Folder: Donors, US National Archives. Return to text.
- Lt. Colonel Elliot Randolph to Miss Jean Bryant, February 1, 1946, RG 112, Series 31 (ZI), Box 1367, Folder: Donors, US National Archives. Return to text.
- Lawrence E. Conrad to the Office of the Surgeon General, November 8, 1944, RG 112, Series 31 (ZI), Box 1367, Folder: Donors, US National Archives. Return to text.
- Pete Bosalovich to the Medical Corps, [no date]. RG 112, Series 31 (ZI), Box 1367, Folder: Donors, US National Archives. Return to text.
- Henry P. Vahey to the Adjutant General, June 21, 1944, RG 112, Series 31 (ZI), Box 1367, Folder: Donors, US National Archives Return to text.
- “Summary of Reports on Acrylic Artificial Eyes,” May 14, 1945, RG 112, Series 31 (ZI), Box 1358, Folder: Artificial Eyes, US National Archives. Return to text.
- Memo, Surgeon General Norman Kirk, September 6, 1944, RG 112, Series 31 (ZI), Box 1368, Folder: Contact Lenses, US National Archives. Return to text.
- “Contact Lens Specialist Service,” March 15, 1945, RG 112, Series 31 (ZI), Box 1368, Folder: Contact Lenses, US National Archives. Return to text.
- Claud M. Hall to Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson, May 31, 1944, and Dr. C.A. Wilhelm to the Surgeon General, April 18, 1944, RG 112, Series 31 (ZI), Box 1368, Folder: Contact Lenses, US National Archives. Return to text.
Evan is an Instructor of History at SUNY Adirondack. He holds a PhD in History from University at Albany, and specializes in gender, disability, and war in the twentieth century. He focuses specifically on veteran disability and rehabilitation in the United States following the First World War.