——— Above all, Huxley felt that individuals should relax to obtain maximum acuity of vision

Rapid Response: BMJ

MY REMARK: Glasses and frames are a billion-dollar industry and if any other method would help for vision it is “unthinkable” that it will come through, or maybe just on an “individual” level………..for those that are trying the described method. Glasses are not the same as unnecessary “heart-stents” which are done probably by the hundred of thousands every year many of them for no good reason [except for the cardiologists]

Thanks G-d that there are glasses for those who really need them, and thanks for the huge advances in ophthalmology such as cataract operations,

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In 1920 a doctor in America released a book that induced a hail of vituperation. The bad reception was not the reaction of a public. It came from his own ranks – the ophthalmological and optometrical professions. His peers who treated ills of the eye, the ophthalmologists, joined the prescribers of glasses, the optometrists, in saying that the claims of Dr W H Bates were preposterously and infuriatingly wrong. Offending the good and the great, the book was “Perfect Sight Without Glasses.”

To the be-goggled everywhere, Dr Bates said that glasses were harmful. Eyes with an optical defect, he argued, could see perfectly without glasses. His tendentious book listed the negatives : when the eye looks through a lens there is a diminishment of colour, lenses must be kept free of smudges and debris, the field of vision is curbed by the edge of a lens, and, further to other bugbears, the wearing of glasses is simply impractical for movers such as athletes.

To cure the optical defect of an eye––whether it has existed since youth or acquired in the course of a lifetime––he had a set of eye exercises. Included in the Bates Method was “sunning,” exposing the eyes to the sun. Also advised was “exclusion of mental strain” by covering the eyes with the palms, and then uncovering to focus on a target, whereupon any optically-defective eyes should note a flash of visual clarity. With practice such flashes should, supposedly, merge into a continuum of sharp eyesight. Not only could the Bates Method treat optical failures of the eye but his regime, said Dr Bates, could also cure many pernicious diseases of the eye. He wrote, in 1920, with adamantine conviction.

Amongst those who bought his book was one who had endured poor eyesight since schooldays. It was the writer, Aldous Huxley. Educationally he had gone from the corridors of Eton to the cloisters of Oxford, and, though he wanted a career in medicine, the onset of visual difficulty at age sixteen had put paid to the ambition. His visual disorder was keratitis, a condition that resulted in scarring of his eye surfaces. For a year Huxley staggered around Eton, and therefrom had a lasting weakness of sight. Troubled by his handicap, Huxley would lifelong remain curious about the eye and vision.

Dynastically soaked in art and science, Huxley was the son of a writer, and his Victorian grandfather was T H Huxley, a zoologist noted for his promulgation of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Sustaining the lineage, their descendant in a modern century, Aldous Huxley, authored several works, out of which “Brave New World” (1932) was an ineffably fine novel about a future in the year 2540, and had shrewdnesses of observation about how humans are arranged in a social order.

In the 1930s Huxley left for America, buying a house in the Hollywood Hills. The writer was enchanted by the Californian desert, its restful light, by the absence of humans from the immaculate dunes. But a living had to be earned, and, putting aside the sweating out of novels and essays, he looked to writing screenplays for the American film industry. Walt Disney, a recipient of his scripts, was overawed by the literariness of the Englishman, complaining “I can only understand every third word he writes.”

In America the Englishman read Dr Bates’s “Perfect Sight Without Glasses” and tested the techniques on himself. These experiments were relayed in his 1943 book “The Art of Seeing.” Finding the Bates Method beneficial, Huxley enthused unreservedly. But his ravings would reach a specialist-of-the-eye who was adversarial.

Doyen of his field, decorated by the queen, the personhood of Sir Stewart Duke-Elder, the most fêted ophthalmologist of the twentieth century in Britain, chanced in his readings upon “The Art of Seeing” by Huxley. Sir Stewart was a writer of brick-sized books on eye disease. Surgeon Oculist to the Royal Household, he had also operated on the eyes of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.

He leafed through Huxley’s book with bemusement, irked that a man of such intellect should advance, for problems of the eye, ideas that were obviously fallacious. To weed out the misinformation that he felt Huxley was propagating, Sir Stewart set goosefeather to parchment, sending a condemnatory review of the book to the British Medical Journal. His disgust at “The Art of Seeing” was similar to the invective attracted by Bates’s “Perfect Sight Without Glasses.

For Sir Stewart Duke-Elder FRS the method of William Bates MD was utter balderdash, stank of quackery, and uglifying the field of ophthalmology. Sir Stewart was intent on crushing Huxley and his eye exercises, and surlily wrote :

“The most stupid feature of his book, however, is that he insists throughout on the physiological mechanism whereby these exercises are supposed to work………He only borders on the ridiculous when he says that these methods result indirectly in the cure or relief of many serious diseases of the eye.”

Huxley was not scientifically trained. But he was a literary Zeus. And he had broad-ranging interests. His eclecticism was betokened by his dosing himself with drugs, famously a shot of LSD. By his pursuit of Indian spirituality, the Vedantic system which teaches that worldly life is an illusion. And by his attempts to rectify the optical error in his eyes via the Bates Method.

What should be extolled is Huxley’s wandering away from his homeland of imaginative and essayistic writing into the tundra of ophthalmology, and risking, as a member of the laity, the wrath of clinicians such as Professor Duke-Elder.

Above all, Huxley felt that individuals should relax to obtain maximum acuity of vision :

“Do not frown when you read. Frowning is a symptom of the nervous muscular tension produced in and around the eyes by misdirected attention and the effort to see. With the achievement of dynamic relaxation and normal functioning, the habit of frowning will disappear of itself.”

––from the non-fiction “The Art of Seeing” (1943) by Aldous Huxley

Competing interests: No competing interests