As human beings, it’s natural to not want to feel alone, especially when it comes to our health challenges. It can be very encouraging and sometimes inspirational to know there are others who have dealt with issues you face, and the same can be said for your eye health issues both minor and major. There’s a certain assuring validation felt knowing a person physically sees the world the way you do. I think it can be especially inspiring to learn of notable figures with eye issues who have achieved great things—especially when said people demonstrate an unstoppable spirit and optimism despite their poor vision health. So today, I’m turning the spotlight on a few famous figures who have dealt with eye health issues ranging from a detached retina, to glaucoma, cataracts, and even a rock star with a bionic eye! These celebrities are proof that eye disease and eye health challenges can be lived through greatly, and while these challenges may affect physical eyesight to varying degrees, they don’t affect the outlook of these extraordinary individuals. This first man I want to tell you about, proved that beauty is in the eye of the beholder—and that eye issues can sometimes even create a perspective that results in great works of art.
Claude Monet | French Painter | Eye Issue: Nuclear Cataracts
One of the most famous painters of all time, and a leader of the Impressionist era, Claude Monet suffered from nuclear cataracts. Monet complained of cataracts’ effects on how he saw color for 10 years before having surgery to get them removed. His vision is thought to have affected his art in this later period, as he painted the world the way he saw it as a result of cataracts: cloudy, desaturated, with muddy reds, and yellowing. Progressive age-related cataracts is a yellowing and darkening of the lens—so we see scientifically through an understanding of cataracts how a medical eye issue resulted in art. Below is a side by side rendering by ophthalmologist Michael Marmor, MD of what Monet saw through his cataracts, and what he painted. “Understanding the challenges these artists faced because of eye disease helps further illuminate the accomplishments they achieved despite their disabilities,” Marmor said.
ABOVE | Left: Photo Rendering of Monet’s vision of actual scene; Right: Monet’s painting
In a letter to his friend G. or J. Bernheim-Jeune, Monet wrote, “To think I was getting on so well, more absorbed than I’ve ever been and expecting to achieve something, but I was forced to change my tune and give up a lot of promising beginnings and abandon the rest; and on top of that, my poor eyesight makes me see everything in a complete fog. It’s very beautiful all the same and it’s this which I’d love to have been able to convey.” – August 11, 1922, Giverny.
After Monet’s cataract surgery in 1923 his former painting style resumed. Another famed French painter, Edgar Degas, suffered from retinal disease in the last 50 years of his career from 1860 to 1910, also progressively affecting his painting style becoming increasingly blurry during this period.
Abraham Lincoln | 16th President of the United States | Eye Issue: Strabismus
Ol’ Honest Abe couldn’t look you straight in the eye, but it had nothing to do with his honesty. Rather, it was the result of an eye issue called strabismus, defined as a disorder in which the two eyes do not line up in the same direction, and therefore do not look at the same object at the same time. With strabismus, the six muscles around the eye don’t work together as a team to focus on a single object as they do normally, and the brain is sent two different images from each eye. Over time, to avoid confusion, the brain ignores images from the weaker eye, resulting in amblyopia or “lazy eye” if not treated. Lincoln’s left eye tended to roll upward, and his right dominant eye did most of the work.
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt | 25th President of the United States | Eye Issue: Detached Retina
Another U.S. President was the victim of eye problems: Teddy Roosevelt was partially blind in his left eye likely due to injury from boxing in his earlier days. Eye doctor historians speculate Roosevelt had a detached retina. Athletes should look to this as a cautionary tale and wear protective eyewear and seek immediate treatment to trauma or injury to the eyes.
Ray Charles | Musician | Glaucoma
Known for his glasses, covering up his blinded eyes, Ray Charles lost his sight due to glaucoma, resulting in blindness by the age of 7. Despite this, Ray Charles still went on not only to be one of the most celebrated musicians, but also to learn to ride a bike, play cards, and even fly a plane. Glaucoma does run in the family, making it all the more vital for people who have a family history of glaucoma to have regular eye examinations. Glaucoma treatment is most effective if the disease is caught early.
Thom Yorke | Musician/Lead Singer, Radiohead | Eye Issue: Bionic Eye
The lead singer of the British rock band Radiohead, Thom Yorke, was born with his eye fixed shut. Doctors determined it was paralyzed and that the condition was permanent. He went to an eye specialist who recommended a muscle graft and he underwent 5 surgeries before the age of 6. In Yorke’s own words:
“When I was born my left eye was completely paralyzed. My eyelid was permanently shut and they thought it would be like that for the rest of my life. Then some specialist bloke realized he could graft a muscle in, like a bionic eye. So I had 5 major operations between the age of nought to 6. They messed up the last one and I went half blind. I can kind of see, I can judge when I hit something but that’s about it.”
Hasn’t stopped Yorke from selling over 30 Million albums with his band! It’s this kind of perseverance, just like all the aforementioned individuals, that we all like to see.