A pane in the eye

I have reported a few eye-watering tales on this blog in the past, but few stories deserve the epithet quite so literally as this one. It was published in a French journal of ophthalmic medicine, the Annales d’oculistique, in 1850. The author, Dr Collette, was a doctor from Liege in Belgium; a contemporary directory refers to him as a ‘médecin des pauvres’ – a doctor for the poor:

Numerous fragments of glass in the eye

This accident befell Francoise Paulet, a robust woman aged 47 who works as a servant to a brewer at Liege. On March 2nd , 1849, at about 10 o’clock in the morning, while a most violent wind was raging outside, a glass door, situated in the middle of a corridor, slammed shut; two of the panes shattered into thousands of pieces, and a great number of these fragments, as well as particles of dust, flew into the eyes of Francoise Paulet, who was standing a short distance away.

This was long before the advent of safety glass, so a pane broken with such force would have been transformed into a lethal cloud of tiny projectiles.

The pains she felt at once made her fall backwards. The foreign bodies which had been introduced to the right eye were quickly removed; but it was not possible to extract every piece from the left eye, and M. Collette was called in to examine her that evening.

The surgeon found his patient in ‘excessive pain’, particularly in the region of the left eye, which had closed. He removed a few fragments from the lower eyelid, but a careful examination of the upper part of the eye did not reveal any more pieces of glass.

Great was his surprise, therefore, next day, at learning that ten fragments of glass had passed out, but so irritable had the eye now become, that he could not re-examine it. Every day for a time, however, fresh fragments issued from the eye, and after a while every few days.

This does not sound a very pleasant experience for the patient. In a footnote, M. Collette reports that ‘this courageous woman continued to work almost continuously, even though she could consume only a little soup in the days immediately after the accident.’

When the fragment was large and irregular, severe orbital pain announced its advent, and by voluntary movements, almost resembling convulsions, the patient amidst great suffering succeeded in disengaging it from behind the orbital cavity, and conducting it to the internal angle of the eye, whence it was easily extracted. At other times the suffering was comparatively slight and short—abundant tears, and sometimes bloody fluid, but never pus, accompanying the extrusion of the fragments.

This strange state of affairs persisted until July – fully three months after the accident – when M. Collette decided to refer her to a specialist eye hospital in Liege:

There M. Ansiaux made two incisions in the superior orbital region, and fragments of glass issued until November, after which her health gradually amended, and she believed herself cured; when, 15th January, 1850, other fragments, with her old sufferings and symptoms, presented themselves. Somewhat later, fragments of bone also issued, and continued to do so at the time of the report.

One of the most surprising aspects of this case is just how long the symptoms continued: almost a year after the accident.

Between March and July, no less than 186 fragments were extracted, besides others which were not preserved—their figure being generally that of a parallelogram or isosceles triangle.

By which the author means that most of the glass fragments were three- or four-sided in shape.

The whole mass weighed 186 Belgian grains, thirteen of the fragments alone weighing 42. Although none such could be detected by the author or the commission appointed to examine the case, it was concluded that laceration of the conjunctiva must have given admission to these masses to the deep parts of the orbit. Repeated examination could detect no fragments in any of the other regions in the vicinity of the eye. No affection of the brain or of the eye itself had occurred. 

186 Belgian grains is 9.9 grams or 0.35 oz – not an enormous mass, unless the substance you happen to be weighing is fragments of glass, and their location the orbit of the eye.  It’s a surprising tale, for all sorts of reasons: the eye socket retained a startling volume of glass for almost a year, and yet the woman’s sight and overall health were not seriously compromised. Yet another example of the sheer resilience of the human body.

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