Oct 21, 2022

Cataracts and Genealogy

October 21, 2022

This week I had cataract surgery. The surgery is very common nowadays and almost always successful. After only a day and a half, I’m seeing things more clearly than I have for years. Colors seem to pop. I’m hopeful that I’ll have a glasses-free (or nearly free) future.


While normal now, such outcomes weren’t always the case. In the past, cataracts often meant eventual blindness. Although cataracts have been a bane of aging for a long time, surgeries to repair them weren’t even possible until quite recently.


The French Impressionist Claude Money suffered from cataracts as he aged. His once vibrant and colorful paintings became darker and darker as his cataracts grew.


At the time, around 1900, cataract surgery was possible but often unsuccessful. For over ten years, Monet refused surgery, fearing that it would lead to certain blindness.


Eventually, he consented to the surgery, but at that time it entailed multiple surgeries and the wearing of special glasses afterwards. Still, it allowed Monet to return to his original brighter paintings.


For many people the results of early cataract surgery were not as positive. My great grandmother’s sister also had cataract surgery sometime around 1900. It was unsuccessful and she spent the last twenty years of her life blind.


As I recover from my surgery, I’ve been thinking about my ancestors who weren’t as lucky as I am. Just like folks today, if they lived long enough, they eventually developed cataracts. The cataracts may not have made them completely blind, although that was the outcome for many. For some, the cataracts may have just decreased the quality of their lives.


Today, based on the number of folks I’ve seen while I’ve been at the eye surgery center, it’s obvious that cataract surgery is not just extremely successful but also extremely common. Genealogists sometimes long for the “good old days,” but cataract surgery is one area in which we should be grateful for the marvels of modern life.


Carol Stetser