Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Question from David - Elizabeth I and cataracts

Last year I visited a small museum in Italy in an Abbey near the town of Preci. In Tudor times that region had a reputation for skilled eye surgeons and it was said that one operated on Queen Elizabeth 1 of England, as evidence of this fame. This intrigued me. I have done some searches and some Italian references suggest that either Durante or Cesare Scacchi operated on the queen to "remove" cataracts in 1588, with some secrecy as Durante was a surgeon to the Pope.
Searching on line I can't find any references to Elizabeth having cataracts, although she was said to be short-sighted and have various ailments, and any ill-health was not made public.
Does anyone have any useful references that would support the claims from Italy?
The museum may well have been damaged by recent earthquakes.


Foose said...

I can't find any English sources that allege Queen Elizabeth had cataracts, or substantiate the story.

However, in 1596 Durante Scacchi published the claim in his book Subsidum Medicinae (the Latin title is quite long, but is abbreviated to these first two words), a medical book describing eye afflictions, particularly cataracts.

The passage in which he describes the summons he and his brother Cesare received from England is near the front of the book, after the dedication (to a bishop) and headed Caesari Scaccho Fratri S.P.D., which I think can be rendered "To brother Cesare Scacchi, I send many greetings." What follows seems to me, with limited Latin, a fairly uninformative account, not providing any details about the queen's malady or its treatment, but couched in elegant Renaissance rhetoric.

The book is available on Google Books, search "subsidum medicinae" +"durante scacchi" and it should come up. Type in "regina" in the search box on the left and it will take you to the page. Elizabeth is not mentioned by name, she is "illius Regni Regina" (queen of that kingdom).

Regarding the veracity of Scacchi's claim, I simply don't know. In 1596 Elizabeth was something of a fabulous legend, like the Queen of Sheba, so possibly this episode was manufactured for the book, to bolster the Scacchi brothers' reputation and authority as medical experts sought out by an elite international clientele.

PhD Historian said...

The following link is for a page on a website devoted to tourism of the Italian region of Umbria, which includes the small town of Preci where Caesare Scacchi was born. It offers considerable detail on the procedure used to treat Elizabeth I’s cataracts. No primary sources are explicitly cited, but the story appears to have been drawn from the archives of a local museum devoted to the Scacchi brothers and to their contributions to the field of surgery.


There are some interesting and amusing tidbits in the story, for those who cannot read Italian. Apparently Durante Scacchi was personal surgeon to Pope Sixtus V as well as the most famous surgeon of his day. But the obvious issue of religious difference prevented him from attending on Elizabeth I in person, as it was feared in England that he might be a Catholic assassin. In his place and at Elizabeth’s request, Durante sent his brother Cesare who, at 33 years of age, was some 15 yeas younger than Durante. Caesare performed the surgery on Elizabeth at 4AM. She had been prepared by daily bleeding and fasting on each of 3 consecutive days prior to the procedure, as well as by drinking large amounts of water. The procedure itself is described in some detail: Elizabeth was seated in a chair while “an assistant firmly held the royal head.” The hands of the sovereign were restrained under the arms of the chair. Caesare first introduced into the eye a needle made from gold. “Reaching the cataract and with one expert twist he lowered it [the needle] under the cataract.” Precisely how the cataract was removed once the needle was in place is not described. He then did the same to the other eye, using different hands (implying that Caesare was ambidextrous). Following the surgery, the queen’s eyes were treated with an eyewash made from “parts of animals and plants,” including a compost of chicken livers, rue, fennel, verbena euphrasia (i.e., the species name of a plant commonly referred to in English as “eyebright”), and “a little plant from the Valneria region [of Umbria] that acts today as an antipyretic.” This eyewash treatment continued for nine days, by which time the queen was fully healed. Elizabeth rewarded Caesare with one thousand gold coins and other gifts, and he returned home to great fame, and his knowledge was sought by many universities.

The narrative ends with a tangential reference to Caesare’s nephew Francesco and the latter’s treatise on refermentation of wine after bottling, which was published “50 years before Dom Perignon’s ‘De Salubri Potu dissertatio’(1622)”, making Francesco Scacchi (rather than Dom Perignon) the inventor of what would later become known as champagne.

(Note to Foose: I believe “Caesari Scaccho Fratri SPD” is best translated as “To Caesare Scacchi, Fellow of the Society of P... D....” I have not been able to identify the precise meaning of “PD,” but given Durante’s status as personal surgeon to the Pope, I assume it was some kind of religious confraternity or perhaps a guild for surgeons. But compare the use of “SPD” to the similar use in other contexts of “SJ” (Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits), “OFM” (Order of Friars Minor, or the Franciscans), and “FRCS” (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons). I believe SPD is simply an abbreviation for some honorific. Durante is himself referred to earlier in the same text as “Medico SPD.”)

begob said...

Thanks, PhD - seems the techinque is called couching: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Couching_(ophthalmology)