By Hannah Landecker ~
Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.
Most people have two eyes directed forward. In ophthalmology textbooks one is asked to imagine a line drawn from each eye to an object on the horizon: two parallel lines representing two lines of sight are blended by muscular and neural processes into a single image—binocular vision with depth perception. When the lines are askew, both eyes do not fix on the same point. It is hard to live with the ensuing double vision; the image from one of the eyes is suppressed by the brain, and instead of seeing double the person literally sees single. Thus “strabismus,” deviation of one visual axis in the normal visual act, also referred to as “squint” and other colloquial terms that manifest the cosmetic dismay that has always accompanied the condition—lazy eye, boss-eyed, cross-eyed, walleyed, cockeyed.
Pavlov’s influential work on acquired conditioned reflex suggested that the eye and brain could be retrained with repetitive exercises particularly in young children. In 1927 Carl Hubert Sattler (1880–1953?), a Königsberg physician, produced an inexpensive set of stereoscope cards for the diagnosis and treatment of juvenile strabismus at home, subsequently widely translated and reprinted. This edition was published in 1942.
The cards come in pairs that, viewed through a stereoscope, make a composite picture. An umbrella handle is bereft of its canopy. The strabismatic child will see only the handle or the canopy. Asking her what she sees will indicate which eye is fixing on an image and which is suppressed. Bringing the images together—seeing the umbrella whole—is the therapy. According to Sattler, other stereoscope cards, featuring abstract shapes, were hard for children to relate to or describe. Thus the sad moon, the chick following the rooster, etc., were designed to make these exercises fun—though generations of children struggling to put the broom in the snowman’s hand might testify differently. An accompanying booklet told parents and physicians what to ask with each pair, often beginning with the phrase “What do you see?”
British stereoscope cards produced during World War II show airplanes with parachutists descending from them. Sattler’s cards, designed in the 1920s, betray no hint of the historical circumstances of the year of their reprinting: the duck still opens its beak, the frog still jumps through a hoop. Nonetheless ophthalmology was profoundly changed by National Socialist policies regarding Jewish doctors and scientists; by 1942 Sattler was one of the few strabismus specialists left in Germany. Debates over the causes and etiology of strabismus often mentioned hereditary factors and neurotic instability—the very terms “lazy eye” or “boss eye” suggest constitutional failure. To have such a condition was profoundly dangerous; under the Nazis hereditary conditions associated with undesirable character, even eminently correctable ones, were grounds for sterilization or worse.
When these charming cards were issued, German armies were occupying much of Europe, Hitler had convened the Wannsee Conference to coordinate the Final Solution, and trainloads of Jews and other “enemies” were beginning to arrive at Auschwitz and other death camps.
“What do you see?” The question hangs in the air of historical time with quiet intensity.
Hannah Landecker is a Professor at UCLA in the Department of Sociology and the Institute for Society and Genetics. With her BS in Cell and Developmental Biology from the University of British Columbia and her PhD in Science and Technology Studies from MIT, she describes her work as taking place at “the intersection of the life and social sciences.”