An Ophthalmologist's Work Becomes His Hobby

Just because David A. Fleishman, MD, retired did not mean his specialty lost his interest. This former ophthalmic surgeon has become an internationally known expert on the history of vision aids.

Photography by the author

David A. Fleishman, MD, a Boston-trained general ophthalmic surgeon and chief of ophthalmology at Good Samaritan Medical center, Brockton, MA, retired in 2001 after completing 4,500 major eye procedures over 30 years.

However, his specialty didn’t lose his interest. He has become an internationally known expert on the history of vision aids with a website Antique Spectacles that gets more than a million hits every month. The website has over 7,000 viewable images (yet over the past 11 years he has gathered more than 135,000 for his personal, ever-expanding database).

Scroll bridge octagonal frame bifocals, 1860. Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals and claims are often made that a pair of glasses are from the Ben Franklin era. Be warned if you intend to start collecting eyeglasses. (Ben Franklin died in 1790.)

Fleishman has always been a collector of sorts.

“I was collecting stamps and coins at the age of 7,” he says earnestly. “I had an American penny collection. Then one day I found a 1914 D penny in my change—worth more than a hundred dollars—and I was so excited, I immediately ran all the way home to tell my parents.”

His shift in interest to vision aids as collectibles is understandable given his background, but he believes all collectors have something in common.

“A passion for beauty and history,” he says. “And for the cultural or social significance of the objects themselves.”

As examples, he brings out some vision aids from his case.

Twenty sets of spectacles, but each has a history. For example, the ones in the bottom left of the above image were developed by John Richardson, who patented his invention in 1797: 4-lens spectacles, which rotate in from the sides. On the periphery, the extra lenses protected the wearer from sun and dust and, if swung in, gave extra magnification. Sometimes they were just plano (without prescription) lenses, but they were often tinted.

Fleishman, wearing similar glasses for the Physician’s Money Digest photograph (above), holds up a portrait of Col. Nathanial Rochester, painted in 1824 by John James Audubon, “America’s dominant wildlife artist.” It hangs in the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY, where it caught Fleishman’s eye because the subject is wearing Richardson glasses.

Recalling, perhaps, a more elegant and dignified time, Fleishman digs into another of his cases and produces, like a conjurer pulling out rabbits from hats, a collection of lorgnettes, essentially spectacle fronts on the end of a handle.

You can picture actress Dame Maggie Smith using these spectacles in Downton Abbey, but for our portrait, Fleishman poses with one that is 14-carat white gold and is marked “Tiffany.” He does indeed look like a younger relative of Maggie Smith.

Lorgnettes above:

1. Folding lorgnette in tortoise shell case, early 1800s.

2. Spring-loaded lorgnette from 1880 to maybe 1910. This is the one being used by Fleishman in our Physician’s Money Digest photograph.

3. Folding lorgnette, gilded brass, 1880-90.

4. The oldest in collection from Nuremberg, Germany. A single copper wire with hand-made glass, so old it has bubbles in it. Probably 1725, but it may be older by 2 centuries. “When glass ages in contact with moisture (over much time) it often becomes ‘crizzled’ (more crystalline in appearance).”

Nuremberg’s history goes back to the 11th century, but in the 20th it was the rallying point of the Nazi party. The city was nearly flattened by Allied bombing during World War II, but enough survived to be the site of the trial of Nazi war criminals.

The lorgnette was invented about 1770 by George Adams according to the website of the College of Optometrists—a useful website in conjunction with Fleishman’s Antique Spectacles website. The former seemed cleaner and to have more easily accessible information, the latter had more images, but in an Internet Explorer browser the many drop-down menus seemed obscured.

However, the big picture is better painted in Antique Spectacles from references to a 1999 article in Newsweek that reading glasses are one of the most important inventions in the last 2,000 years to the evidence that eyeglasses first appeared in Pisa, Italy, about 1286. The reason is plausible: that the island of Murano in Venice, Italy, was (as every visitor knows) one of the most advanced centers of the medieval glass industry. Italy’s dominance in glass explains the growth of Florence and even why and how Galileo, born in Pisa in 1564, owned a telescope.

An 18th century English instrument maker, Benjamin Martin, himself a sufferer from presbyopia, created his version of “visual glasses” where he added a ring of horn that reduced the amount of light entering the glasses and the eye. He later tilted the lens inward to have the refraction through the center of the lens; he colored the glass blue or violet. Martin’s advertising began in 1756. His marketing was dynamic but his business was sold in auction in 1782.

In the rear, stand “Martin’s Margins” a recent term used by collectors. They were popular from 1760 to 1820. In front, are standard round frame temple spectacles with large ring finials. Side arms came into use as early as 1714, but the example seen in the front image was in common use from about 1750 until the early 19th century.

So if Martin was coloring lenses blue or violet was he anticipating the Hollywood affectation of minor movie celebrities? Or was he thinking of sun damage? Was he planning to introduce sunglasses in this British land of warm beer and grey skies? Who know but someone beat him to it in Germany at the end of the 14th century.

Konrad von Ammenhausen, a Swiss Benedictine monk descended from a noble family was born around 1300. He spent his early life translating Latin verses, “a poem on chess” into High German, a task he completed in 1337. He died about 1350. Dr. Fleishman poses with medieval sunglasses and supplies the text he has written on the back of the painting he is holding. Fleishman is wearing oval-framed green tinted sunglasses with a C bridge, adjustable pin-in-slot sides, with spatula endings dated 1830-40.

“The painting is of Count Camillo Cavour (1810-1861),” Fleishman says. “His specs are wire frame with K bridge, certainly from the mid-19th century.”

Top image: The painting is “Old Man Writing by Candlelight” by Hendrick Terbrugghen Dutch, circa 1627. It is at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, MA. Those spectacles are single wire Nuremberg nose spectacles, the type that pince nez were fashioned after, beginning in the 1840s in France.

Bottom image:

A. Rectangular magnifier (perhaps French) with a fancy handle, mid-19th century.

B. Round frame, gilded brass, spring lorgnette, late 19th century.

C. Single lens magnifier (probably German), horn frame, early 1800s.

D. Chinese folding nose spectacles, with rock crystal lenses, about 1750-1800.

Fleishman took part in a Public Radio program 4 years ago “Making a Spectacle of Yourself” at WNPR Connecticut broadcast, ready to offer information on his hobby to any interested listener with questions on that January 8, 2010. The comments were unexpected but interesting.

They included:

“As a dating teenager, a kiss presented a terrible dilemma. Do I take off my glasses for the kiss so they didn't mash into our faces?”

“Glasses don't make me LOOK old, they make me FEEL old. Then, last year, I had to get a hearing aid…”

“I'm curious what Jerks With Specs think about wearing non-prescription glasses. That is, glasses strictly for fashion.”

“When I was at a meeting, or if I was at a loss for words, I would remove my glasses and clean them. This gave me time to figure out what I would say while looking professional…”

So, feel free to ask Dr. Fleishman your questions.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.