Contributed by Varsha Reddy, MS2
Albrecht von Graefe, a trailblazer in ophthalmology, was considered the founding father of ophthalmology and the father of glaucoma in Germany. He was born on May 22, 1828, to Karl Ferdinand von Graefe, a surgeon and director of surgery in a Berlin clinic, and Augusta von Alten.[1,2] Graefe was intellectually gifted, graduating with honors at 15 years old and completing medical school at 19 years old. He then embarked on travels across Europe studying under the time’s most renowned ophthalmologists for the following 3 years.
Upon his return to Berlin, Graefe founded his own eye clinic and was the first person to practice solely ophthalmology in Germany. Being an extraordinarily hard worker, a typical day of his involved working on scientific papers, morning rounds, and lecturing - all before lunch. He then went to the outpatient clinic, performing the simpler surgeries, followed by the more complex surgeries. After dinner, he would have private consultations and visit the clinic once again, often returning home in the late-night hours.
His life’s work was nothing short of extraordinary. He described different types of hemianopias, hypothesizing that unilateral cerebral disease may be connected to homonymous hemianopias. He also described subtypes of glaucoma and discovered that the visual information taken from both eyes was formed into an image in the brain rather than the retina. Graefe’s impressive career saw many firsts, including the first descriptions of retinal artery embolism, optic neuritis, papilledema associated with brain tumors, choroidal tubercles in miliary tuberculosis, and glaucomatous optic disc excavation. Graefe’s eponymous discoveries and inventions include lid lag seen in exophthalmic goiter (Von Graefe’s sign), chronic progressive ophthalmoplegia, and a knife used in cataract surgery.[1,3]
At the time, ophthalmology was considered a small part of medicine under the umbrella of surgery. While Graefe understood that ophthalmology was a field within medicine, he believed it should be appreciated as a specialty separate from general surgery and pushed for its separation at all universities.[1,3] His colleagues and friends vehemently disagreed, yet he persisted until he eventually became head of the eye clinic in Berlin’s Charité hospital, a substantial step towards recognition of ophthalmology as a separate entity.
A brilliant contributor to the field of ophthalmology with intellectual curiosity, he also recognized different opinions and had cultural awareness and a love for friendship. He devoted his life to helping others and asked for little despite being born into a wealthy family. Outside of medicine, he enjoyed hiking and often did so in the Alps. After having developed tuberculosis at the age of 33, he was in remission for 7 years. Despite knowing he would likely succumb to his disease, he tirelessly continued his endeavors and made significant contributions to the field in the years before his death. Albrecht von Graefe died on July 20, 1870, in Berlin, Germany, leaving behind ideas and discoveries that transformed the field of ophthalmology for centuries to come.[2 ]Following his death, his colleagues honored him by installing his name on the journal he founded: “Albrecht von Graefe’s Archiv für Ophthalmologie”.
“So much for the organ which exerts an influence for the nourishment of our mind, for the foundation of our worldview, and for the relation of men among themselves, about whose extent the person in undiminished possession can barely give a full account. Speakers have praised it; poets have sung it; but the full value of it is sunk into the mute longings of those who once possessed and lost it.” - Albrecht von Graefe