lincoln portrait Young Lincoln portrait

An Analytical Biography of a Great Mind- by Edward J. Kempf

Diplopia and Eyestrain

Decoordination of the left eye with dominant right eye was more serious in Lincoln's case than usual in that his persistence in reading tended to produce severe eyestrain that increased upon fatigue, moral frustration or emotional excitement, with the sequelae of headache, nausea, indigestion, chills, mental distraction and gloominess. In youth and maturity Lincoln was unable to focus both eyes for any length of time without volitional strain. Herein existed a definite unconscious involitional determinant of a special form of self-righting compensation on conscious learning. He must not only use right eye vision against out-off-focus left eye vision, but he must consciously and conscientiously see in his mind's eye the morally right and better side of himself in sympathetic interaction with other people, in order to reduce the stress of visualizing himself as being wrong, unkind or unjust in ways that caused gloomy frustration of his egoistic self-respect and will to live.

The continuous tendency of visual decoordination was sufficient to increase nervous fatigue and depression of mood or "spirit" upon prolonged use of the eyes, particularly for reading. Such conditions tend in most youths to induce discouragement of reading, and lethargy with laziness. Despite this impairment, young Lincoln was an eager student and liked to lie on the floor and read aloud by the light of the open wood fire. Later, as a man, he often read in a reclining position on a couch or the floor. His work as a lawyer and politician required him to read excessively, and he adapted to this by learning to scan pages rapidly for essentials and by developing a highly retentive memory. When it was unnecessary to use his eyes or mind he would lapse into a characteristic, disinterested mental state.

The earliest definite evidence of observation of Lincoln's visual decoordination has been recorded by Dr. T. H. Shastid (1929), an oculist who practiced in Pittsfield, Illinois. It was described to him by his father who, when a boy, lived in New Salem and knew Abe Lincoln, storekeeper and postmaster of the village. Shastid described him as a melancholy but kindly spoken person who liked to amuse children as well as grownups. "Abe" would sit on a box in front of the store when not waiting on a customer, generally with a dejected and abstracted expression. He liked in summer to lie on the ground near the store, with his bare feet elevated against the trunk of a tree and read.

Shastid noticed that Lincoln's left eye looked queer at times and would suddenly turn upward. Some 20 years later he saw Lincoln in several debates with Douglas and in several trials as a lawyer. He then recognized the eye condition as being produced by a weakness of the left eye muscles that turned the eyeball upward. Upon excitement this condition would suddenly increase and produce a severe divergent squint.

Dr. Shastid diagnosed Lincoln's eye condition, from his father's description, as hyperphoria. The continuous eyestrain, he pointed out, was at least partly the cause of moodiness or "chronic inexpressible blues." He thought that Lincoln was possibly also color blind, for he said to Dr. Shastid's grandmother that he did not enjoy beauty in flowers and sunsets like other people. However, Lincoln's description, in this period, of colors in the scene of an Indian massacre (see later chapter) indicate that his perception of colors was not entirely deficient.

In 1857, at 48, he bought, upon the recommendation of a friend while shopping in a,jewelry store, his first pair of "spectacles" for reading. He tried on several pairs and paid 37-1/2 cents for the glasses that he liked best. Until a few years before, he probably had effective accommodation of the right eye, although it was always attended by more or less strain from decoordination of the left.

The following reports on Lincoln's eyes and glasses are taken from several later authoritative investigations. The glasses were reported by Almer Coe of Chicago to have in each lens the strength of plus 6.75 diopters. This indicated that Lincoln probably had four or four and a half diopters of hyperopia or far sightedness at 48. This severe disability had no doubt been developing for a number of years and required constant effort to produce sufficient accommodation for reading.

Dr. W. H. Crisp (1932), opthalmologist, recorded the following observations. Fullface photographs show an upward deviation of the left eye, great enough to produce a lack of fusion of its images with the right eye. The two eyes did not work together, possibly as a result of a vertical strabismus of the left.

Dr. S. Mitchell (1914) found evidence of left hyperphoria and suggested that the corrugations of his brow and crow's feet at each corner of the eyes showed that he habitually used auxiliary facial muscles to support the external muscles of the eyes in the work for visual coordination.

Dr. K. C. Wold (1948) has suggested that the diplopia was caused by a decoordination of the external muscles of the left eye which was inherently connected in some way with the other facial asymmetries.

No physician of record, in so far as I know, has offered an explanation of the nervous origin and nature of the asymmetrical functioning of the left facial and ocular muscles, although some of the nervous effects of eyestrain have been discussed.

Most people with diplopia learn how to disregard the dimmer visual image by concentrating mentally on the image of the dominant eye. When both eyes are used in focal coordination, volitional effort is necessary, and this eventually produces mental visual fatigue and organic eyestrain tending to cause headache. Under mental or physical fatigue or emotional excitement, visual decoordination increases (as noticed at times in Lincoln by his contemporaries) and the stronger image is underlapped by more or less of a shadowy, weaker image, increasing mental confusion and uneasiness. Lincoln learned in boyhood to cultivate a calm, humorous, patient, kindly attitude and friendly interpersonal assurances, and a common-sense philosophy of life that generally protected him from emotional provocation and increase of this distress. However, he had a singularly impressive mystifying experience with more persistent diplopia after a fatiguing day upon the evening of his election as President. His description and interpretation of this experience to Ward Lamon and Noah Brooks is given in Chapter XLII. The strange mystery of his double vision and its superstitious meaning for him has been cited by many biographers as an indication that Lincoln had clairvoyant sensitivity. It seems evident now that it was the simple result of an old injury of his brain in childhood.

Through his adult years Lincoln had many nervous attacks, characterized by eyestrain and headache with nausea and indigestion, so severe that often he became unable to work and had to lie down with a cold compress over his eyes. He had couches in his law office, at home, and in the White House, for this purpose.

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