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Evidence For the Accepted Theory of Accommodation

CHAPTER 3 - "Perfect Sight Without Glasses" by W.H. Batesi, M.D.

THE power of the eye to change its focus for vision at different distances has puzzled the scientific mind ever since Kepler1 tried to explain it by supposing a change in the position of the crystalline lens. Later on every imaginable hypothesis was advanced to account for it. The idea of Kepler had many supporters. So also had the idea that the change of focus was effected by a lengthening of the eyeball. Some believed that the contractive power of the pupil was sufficient to account for the phenomenon, until the fact was established, by the operation for the removal of the iris, that the eye accommodated perfectly without this part of the visual mechanism. Some, dissatisfied with all these theories, discarded them all, and boldly asserted that no change of focus took place,2 a view which was conclusively disproven when the invention of the ophthalmoscope made it possible to see the interior of the eye.

The idea that the change of focus might be brought about by a change in the form of the lens appears to have been first advanced, according to Landolt, [3] by the Jesuit, Scheiner (1619). Later it was put forward by Descartes (1637). But the first definite evidence in support of the theory was presented by Dr. Thomas Young in a paper read before the Royal Society in 1800.1 "He adduced reasons," says Donders, "which, properly understood, should be taken as positive proofs."2 At the time, however, they attracted little attention.

  Fig. 9. Diagrams of the Images of Purkinje  
  No. 1. Images of a candle: a, on the cornea; b, on the front of the lens- c, on the back of the lens.  
  No. 2. Images of lights shining through rectangular openings in a screen while the eye is at rest (R) and during accommodation (A): a, on the cornea; b, on the front of the lens; c, on the back of the lens (after Helmholtz).  
  Note that in No. 2, A, the central images are smaller and have approached each other, a change which, if it actually took place would indicate an increase of curvature in the front of the lens during accommodation.  

Studies of the Images of Purkinje

About half a century later it occurred to Maximilian Langenbeck to seek light on the problem by the aid of what are known as the images of Purkinje. 1 If a small bright light, usually a candle, is held in front of and a little to one side of the eye, three images are seen: one bright and upright; another large, but less bright, and also upright; and a third small, bright and inverted. The first comes from the cornea, the transparent covering of the iris and pupil, and the other two from the lens, the upright one from the front and the inverted one from the back. The corneal reflection was known to the ancients, although its origin was not discovered till later; but the two reflections from the lens were first observed in 1823 by Purkinje; whence the trio of images is now associated with his name. Langenbeck examined these images with the naked eye, and reached the conclusion that during accommodation the middle one became smaller than when the eye was at rest. And since an image reflected from a convex surface is diminished in proportion to the convexity of that surface, he concluded that the front of the lens became more convex when the eye adjusted itself for near vision. Donders repeated the experiments of Langenbeck, but was unable to make any satisfactory observations. He predicted, however, that if the images were examined with a magnifier they would "show with certainty" whether the form of the lens changed during accommodation. Cramer,2 acting on this suggestion, examined the images as magnified from ten to twenty times, and thus convinced himself that the one reflected from the front of the lens became considerably smaller during accommodation.

Accepted Theory of Accommodation

Subsequently Helmholtz, working independently, made a similar observation, but by a somewhat different method. Like Donders, he found the image obtained by the ordinary methods on the front of the lens very unsatisfactory, and in his "Handbook of Physiological Optics" he describes it as being "usually so blurred that the form of the flame cannot be definitely distinguished.''1 So he placed two lights, or one doubled by reflection from a mirror, behind a screen in which were two small rectangular openings, the whole being so arranged that the lights shining through the openings of the screen formed two: images on each of the reflecting surfaces. During accommodations, it seemed to him that the two images on the front of the lens became smaller and approached each other, while on the return of the eye to a state of rest they grew larger again and separated This change, he said, could be seen "easily and distinctly."2 The observations of Helmholtz regarding the behavior of the lens in accommodation, published about the middle of the last century, were soon accepted as facts, and have ever since been stated as such in every text-book dealing with the subject.

"We may say," writes Landolt, "that the discovery of the part played by the crystalline lens in the act of accommodation is one of the finest achievements of medical physiology, and the theory of its working is certainly one of the most firmly established; for not only have "savans" furnished lucid and mathematical proofs of its correctness, but all other theories which have been advanced as explaining accommodation have been easily and entirely overthrown...

Observations of Helmholtz Accepted

The fact that the eye is accommodated for near vision by an increase in the curvature of its crystalline lens, is, then, incontestably proved."[1]

  Fig. 10. Diagram by Which Helmholtz Illustrated His Theory of Accommodation  
  R is supposed t be the resting state of the lens, in which it is adjusted for distant vision. In A the suspensory ligament is supposed to have been relaxed through the contraction of the ciliary muscle, permitting the lens to bulge forward by virtue of its own elasticity.  

"The question was decided," says Tscherning, "by the observation of the changes of the images of Purkinje during accommodation, which prove that accommodation is effected by an increase ofcurvature of the anterior surface of the crystalline lens."[2]

  Fig. 11. Thomas Young (1773-1829)  
  English physician and man of science who was the first to present a serious argument in support of the view that accommodation is brought about by the agency of the lens.  

Scientific Credulity

"The greatest thinkers," says Cohn, "have mastered a host of difficulties in discovering this arrangement, and it is only in very recent times that its processes have been clearly and perfectly set forth in the works of Sanson, Helmholtz, Brucke, Hensen and Volckers."[1]

Huxley refers to the observations of Helmholtz as the "facts of adjustment with which all explanations of that process must accord,"2 and Donders calls his theory the "true principle of accommodation."[3]

Arlt, who had advanced the elongation theory and believed that no other was possible, at first opposed the conclusions of Cramer and Helmholtz,4 but later accepted them.[5]

Yet in examining the evidence for the theory we can only wonder at the scientific credulity which could base such an important department of medical practice as the treatment of the eye upon such a mass of contradictions. Helmholtz, while apparently convinced of the correctness of his observations indicating a change of form in the lens during accommodation, felt himself unable to speak with certainty of the means by which the supposed change was effected,[3] and strangely enough the question is still being debated. Finding, as he states, "absolutely nothing but the ciliary muscle to which accommodation could be attributed,"7 Helmholtz concluded that th