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    History lessons from Hamilton's glasses


    Concave or convex lenses?

    Concave lenses for myopia were in existence in 1804 but were not common; however, convex lenses for reading were. Hamilton was 47 years old and probably used a pair for reading and writing his voluminous treatises.

    Plus, judging from Burr’s negative reaction, it seems he was not used to seeing Hamilton walking around the streets of lower Manhattan wearing his glasses as he might have if he were myopic.

    My best clue came as I pondered a sculpture of the Hamilton-Burr duel on display at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library (Figure 1.).

    Figure 1.

    Although the artist was unlikely to have been thinking about the correct prescription for task demands and working distance, as I gazed at Hamilton peering through his oval half-eyes, he appeared to train his dominant eye more on the front sight of his dueling pistol than at Burr.

    Shooters will tell you that it is more important to see a clear front sight than a perfectly focused target.

    I concluded that Hamilton’s lenses were convex, and he was simply doing what any knowledgeable and experienced presbyopic shooter would do while taking deadly aim.

    Related: It’s not easy seeing green

    Who shot first?

    Whoa, wait a minute. I thought Hamilton was going to “throw away his shot?” One could easily aim high and away from an opponent without putting on glasses.

    Hamilton did fire and hit a tree limb high above Burr’s head, but there is controversy as to who fired first.

    Did Hamilton shoot first and hit the limb intentionally, or did Burr fire first, hitting Hamilton and causing him to pull his trigger reflexively while falling backwards?

    Hmm, maybe I should just stick to comprehensive eye exams and leave the detective work to the professionals.

    What history teaches us today

    How tragic that two men who were on the same team and had the same goal—a strong United States—would engage in an act as stupid as dueling.

    Unfortunately, that is often the result of the combustible mix of oversized egos and too much testosterone.

    Burr never expressed much remorse, but years later while pondering an act of mercy in a story he had read, he commented, “…I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

    I think optometry could learn a lesson or two from history.

    I have observed over the years that we ODs have a troublesome tic of forming circular firing squads, taking potshots at each other, and even shooting ourselves in the foot.

    Maybe the world is wide enough for you and me to practice the way that each of us sees fit and still form a strong, united profession.

    Perhaps the most important lesson of all: It is never too late to say you are sorry—until, you know, it is.

    Read more from Dr. Brown here

    Michael Brown, OD, MHS-CL, FAAO
    Dr. Brown has practiced medical optometry in a comanagement center and with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in ...


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