Seeing is Believing

By Ginny A. Roth

multilingual eye chart with 7 panels

If you can read this chart, then you may have very good vision.  This international, multilingual eye-test chart is the creation of German optometrist and American Optometric Association member George Mayerle.  Mayerle worked in San Francisco in the mid-1890s when optometry was professionalizing. The chart, which measures 22 by 28 inches (containing a positive version on one side and a negative version on the reverse) was, according a Mayerle, not only,  “the result of many years of theoretical study and practical experience,” but also a symbol of the immigrant nation and diverse city in which it was published.  The chart, which according to an advertisement was “the only chart published that can be used by people of any nationality,” combines four subjective tests done during an eye examination:

“Running  through the middle of the chart, the seven vertical panels test for acuity of vision with characters in the Roman alphabet (for English, German, and other European readers) and  also in Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Hebrew. A panel in the center replaces the alphabetic characters with symbols for children and adults who were illiterate or who could not read any of the other writing systems offered. Directly above the center panel is a version of the radiant dial that tests for astigmatism. On either side of that are lines that test the muscular strength of the eyes. Finally, across the bottom, boxes test for color vision, a feature intended especially (according to one advertisement) for those working on railroads and steamboats”— Stephen P. Rice, National Library of Medicine, Hidden Treasure.

Detail of an eye chart showing images of a dog, cat, flag and an eye.

Detail of the center panel on the positive side of the eye chart
National Library of Medicine #C06229 (detail)

We post these images in honor of National Eye Exam Month, which occurs every August, during which the public is encouraged to see their ophthalmologist for a thorough eye exam, and promote eye health and safety. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, one of many eye-health resources listed on the National Eye Institute Web site, some sight threatening disorders can be prevented or slowed if detected early.

Learn more about this and other rare objects from the National Library of Medicine’s historical collections in the book Hidden Treasure.

portrait of Ginny outside Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.