Four years ago, while I was casually researching Molyneux’s problem, I stumbled on one of the most fascinating texts I have ever read. It is an account, three centuries old, of the experiences of a boy cured of congenital blindness at the age of thirteen. He was not, in the narrowest sense, actually blind. He could tell night from day, and “for the most Part in a strong Light, distinguish Black, White, and Scarlet”; but he had no perception of shape, and his sense even of those colors was imperfect enough that when he was later shown them, after gaining his sight, he did not recognize them.
His blindness was owing to cataracts, in both eyes; on some day before 1728, the surgeon William Cheselden took an instrument to one eye and dislocated the cataractous lens. With the opacity removed, the boy could see:
Now Scarlet he thought the most beautiful of all Colours, and of others the most gay were the most pleasing, whereas the first Time he saw Black, it gave him great Uneasiness, yet after a little Time he was reconcil’d to it; but some Months after, seeing by Accident a Negroe Woman, he was struck with great Horror at the Sight.
When he first saw, he was so far from making any Judgment about Distances, that he thought all Objects whatever touch’d his Eyes, (as he express’d it) as what he felt, did his Skin; and thought no Objects so agreeable as those which were smooth and regular, tho’ he could form no Judgment of their Shape, or guess what it was in any Object that was pleasing to him: He knew not the Shape of any Thing, nor any one Thing from another, however different in Shape, or Magnitude; but upon being told what Things were, whose Form he before knew from feeling, he would carefully observe, that he might know them again; but having too many Objects to learn at once, he forgot many of them; and (as he said) at first he learn’d to know, and again forgot a thousand Things in a Day. One Particular only (tho’ it may appear trifling) I will relate; Having often forgot which was the Cat, and which the Dog, he was asham’d to ask; but catching the Cat (which he knew by feeling) he was observ’d to look at her stedfastly, and then setting her down said, So Puss! I shall know you another Time. He was very much surpriz’d, that those Things which he had liked best, did not appear most agreeable to his Eyes, expecting those Persons would appear most beautiful that he lov’d most, and such Things to be most agreeable to his Sight that were so to his Taste. We thought he soon knew what Pictures represented, which were shew’d to him, but we found afterwards we were mistaken; for about two Months after he was couch’d, he discovered at once, they represented solid Bodies; when to that Time he consider’d them only as Partly-colour’d Planes, or Surfaces diversified with Variety of Paint; but even then he was no less surpriz’d expecting the Pictures would feel like the Things they represented, and was amaz’d when he found those Parts, which by their Light and Shadow appear’d now round and uneven, felt only flat like the rest; and ask’d which was the lying Sense, Feeling, or Seeing?
Being shewn his Father’s Picture in a Locket at his Mother’s Watch, and told what it was, he acknowledged a Likeness, but was vastly surpriz’d; asking, how it could be, that a large Face could be express’d in so little Room, saying, It should have seemed as impossible to him, as to put a Bushel of any thing into a Pint.
At first, he could bear but very little Sight; and the Things he saw, he thought extreamly large; but upon feeling Things larger, those first seen he conceiv’d less, never being able to imagine any Lines beyond the Bounds he saw; the Room he was in he said, he knew to be but Part of the House, yet he could not conceive that the whole House could look bigger. Before he was couch’d, he expected little Advantage from Seeing, worth undergoing an Operation for, except reading and writing; for he said, He thought he could have no more Pleasure in walking abroad than he had in the Garden, which he could do safely and readily. And even Blindness he observ’d, had this Advantage, that he could go any where in the Dark much better than those who can see; and after he had seen, he did not soon lose this Quality, nor desire a Light to go about the House in the Night. He said, every new Object was a new Delight, and the Pleasure was so great, that he wanted Ways to express it; but his Gratitude to his Operator he could not conceal, never seeing him for some Time without Tears of Joy in his Eyes, and other Marks of Affection: And if he did not happen to come at any Time when he was expected, he would be so griev’d, that he could not forbear crying at his Disappointment. A Year after first Seeing, being carried upon Epsom Downs, and observing a large Prospect, he was exccedingly delighted with it, and call’d it a new Kind of Seeing. And now being lately couch’d of his other Eye, he says, that Objects at first appear’d large to this Eye, but not so large as they did at first to the other; and looking upon the same Object with both Eyes, he thought it look’d about twice as large as with the first couch’d Eye only, but not Double, that we can any Ways discover.
From William Chesselden, “An Account of Some Observations Made by a Young Gentleman, Who Was Born Blind, or Lost His Sight So Early, That He Had No Remembrance of Ever Having Seen, and Was Couch’d Between 13 and 14 Years of Age,” 402 Philosophical Transactions 447 (1728), 448-50.
I wondered in 2012, and I wonder now, what became of the boy. No one seems to know his name. Is it written in some lost paper of Cheselden’s?
1. He either was actually born blind, or went blind quickly: “He Had No Remembrance of Ever Having Seen.”
The boy was couched “Between 13 and 14 Years of Age.” I take that to mean that he was thirteen when the first eye was treated, and fourteen when the second eye was (see the quoted material below).