Davis fought health problems for a good part of his life, including a nearly fatal bout with malaria in 1836. He was seriously ill again in the winter of 1857-1858, and by February he began suffering from a relapse of a chronic inflammation of his left eye. The disease was so bad that a visiting ophthalmologist commented “I do not see why this eye has not burst.” As a result, most photos of Davis are in right profile, thus hiding his left eye
The eye disease can be traced back to his first bout with malaria. About a dozen years later, during a relapse, Davis suffered a “severe eye attack” such that, in the words of his wife Varina, he could not “bear a ray of light on either eye.” Documents show that the disease recurred almost annually from that time and through the Civil War
In a severe relapse in 1858, Davis was seen by two famous eye physicians of the time – Drs. Robert Stone and Isaac Hayes. Stone described the condition of Davis’s left eye in detail, including “ulceration of the cornea,” “abscess of the eye,” and “hypopyon” (a collection of pus cells in the aqueous humor). It was Hayes who commented that he couldn’t see why Davis’s eye had not already burst. Davis was given treatments of the day, including “quiet” and bandages soaked in herbal remedies; he also underwent eye surgeries in 1859 and 1860.
Davis was unquestionably suffering from another siege of metaherpetic keratoiritis (inflammation of the cornea due to structural damage to the cornea) in 1858. The cold and fever that had gripped him, as well as the intense stress over Kansas, could easliy have contributed to the timing of the new assault on his left eye.
Dr. Stone's clinical notes specifically talk about ulceration of the cornea. His description indicates a ruptured healing descemetococle (hernia of the cornea) filled with iris tissue and a threatened abcess of the eyeball, as well as a possible hypopyon, an accumulation of pus in the anteriorr chamber of the eye.
Describing Davis upon his return to the Senate in 1857, a reporter underscored how raving his illness had been: "a pale ghastly-looking figure, his eye bandaged with strips of white linen passing over the head, his whole aspect presenting an appearace of feebleness and debility."
As a film covered the left eye, he could see only light and darkness but could no longer distinguish objects. Contemporaries used various terms when they mentioned the eye. A close friend mentioned "clouded"; another observer called it "discolored"; even the word "blind" was used. In photographs taken in 1859 and 1860, Davis did not look diretly at the camera. Instead, he presented a profile which emphasized his right side and hid his left side and his damaged eye.
While imprisoned, Mr. Davis reffered very kindly, and in terms of admiration, to his former friend and medical attendant, Dr. Thomas miller , of Washington. Also to Dr. Stone of Washington, who had made a specialty of the eye and its diseases. From him he had received clearer ideas of the power of vision, and the adaptation of the eye to various distanes and degrees oflight, than from any other source. Referring to his own loss of sight in one eye from leucoma (a white, opaque scar of the cornea), or an ulceration of the cornia, he asid he could discern ligh with it, but could not distinguish objects.
Although Davis never again experienced eye disease that remotely resemble the seriousness of the 1858 attack and the 1859 surgery, they left their marks. He turned to eyeglasses, with evidently some temporary help. As time passed, however, the degenerative ocular process connected with his affliction continued, and in all probablity phthisisvalbi (shrunken, non-functioning eye) set in.
In 2006, Dr. R. W. Hertle, a prominent opthamologist at Children's Hospital in Pittsburg concluded that Davis suffered from “herpes simplex keratouveitis,” (herpes simplex of the eye) a condition that remains a major cause of injury to the eye.
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