The iris as pictured in De historia stirpium by Leonard Fuchs (1542).
Portrait of Leonard Fuchs.
Fuchsia magellanica, named for Fuchs.
Johann Gottfried Zinn.
A bouquet of zinnias, named for Zinn.
Mark HH. Some Flowers in Ophthalmology. Arch Ophthalmol. 2009;127(9):1215-1217. doi:10.1001/archophthalmol.2009.154
Two men in the annals of ophthalmology are probably better known to gardeners than to ophthalmologists, namely, Leonard Fuchs (1501-1566) and Johann Gottfried Zinn (1727-1759), whose names were given to flowers. Their interest in flowers and plants arose from the fact that botany used to be an integral part of the basic curriculum of medicine, next to anatomy and physiology, given that almost the entire pharmacopeia consisted of plants and their extracts.
Before Fuchs and Zinn, one part of the eye, the iris, had already shared its name with a flower. In Greek mythology, Iris was the name of a beautiful messenger between the Olympian gods and human beings, one who, according to legend, descended to earth on the rainbow. In other legends, she wore a multicolored garment. In any case, her name is ascribed to the many colors of the rainbow. In the eye, the color of the tissue around the pupil usually varies from person to person, and was reportedly first named “Iris” by Rufus of Ephesus (approximately AD 98-117).1 The German name is “Regenbogenhaut,” or “rainbow coat.”
In the plant world, the iris (Figure 1) is a genus of between 200 and 300 flowering species with a wide, showy variety of colors. The genus is distributed worldwide in northern temperate zones and has been known since the earliest times. The fleur-de-lis, a stylized design of an iris, has been often used as a symbol on flags and coats of arms. Extracts from the rhizomes of the German iris were once used as ingredients in medicines and are used today in perfumes and some brands of gin, such as Bombay Sapphire. The dried rhizomes were once given to babies to help quell teething pain, despite the fact that some species can be toxic.
Leonard Fuchs (Figure 2) was born in Wemding, Bavaria, to a well-to-do family, but lost his father at age 5 years. He obtained his Master of Arts degrees in philology (Greek, Latin, and Hebrew; 1521) and philosophy (1521), and a medical degree (1524; DrMed) at the University of Ingolstadt.2 He later moved to Munich. He is best known as one of the founders of botany, with his publication in 1542 of the monumental De historia stirpium, or History of Plants,3,4 which contains the names (in alphabetical order) of more than 500 wild and domesticated plants, along with their detailed descriptions, color pictures, and medicinal uses. He became famous for his drive to abandon the Arabic style of medicine, as taught for instance in the school of Salerno, Italy, and to return to classical Greek sources.5 He was a Professor of Medicine at the University of Tubingen for 31 years.
Leonard Fuchs was no relation to Ernst Fuchs (1851-1930) of Vienna, Austria, whose name is attached to corneal dystrophy and heterochromic iritis, the retinal black spot of myopia.
The published contributions to ophthalmology often attributed to Fuchs consisted mainly of 1 large table that listed all the diseases of the eyes then known (64 altogether) and 2 booklets. (However, it is now known that he did not write these himself). The table, said to be the first that was specially dedicated to diseases of the eye, was published in 15386 and contains the Greek name of each known disease with its brief description in the customary Latin, together with references to the literature, mostly to Celsus and Avicenna. The table was an addition to the 5 medical posters he had published in 1537 as guides for his students.
The first booklet, of approximately 24 pages, was reportedly published in 1538, with another edition in 1539. It was believed to be the first ophthalmology text written in the vernacular.7,8 The title may be translated as A new highly useful booklet, and anatomy of an open eye and its description, how to make and use valuable purgation, plaster, collyria, salves, powders, and waters. No author was given. It is sometimes attributed to Fuchs, perhaps because another, similar booklet listed him as the author.9 However, communications in print and in correspondence by legitimate medical and scientific men at that time were always in Latin, so historians generally deny these attributions.10,11 The text follows standard Greek teachings as to the humoral causes of disease and the emission theory of vision. In its acceptance of the idea by Aristotle that the color green was most salutary because it was in the middle of the linear sequence of colors between black and white, the book recommended looking at green objects such as grass or emeralds to prevent eye problems.
The title of the other booklet12 published in 1539 may be translated as All the diseases of the eyes, assembled by the highly learned Leonhart Fuchs of Onoltzbach [Ansbach], most needed to be known by all eye doctors. It is basically derived from the table attributed to Fuchs and consists of 32 pages, preceded by a reproduction of an old anatomical cross-section diagram of the eye that differs from the one published in the previous booklet. The book details the anatomy of the eye and symptoms of its diseases in a similar fashion to those in the table, which had been published the previous year. It ends with prescriptions promoted by the publisher and author, Heinrich Vogtherr, and his brothers.
The fuchsia plant (Figure 3), whose name is pronounced “fyew shuh” in English, was named in honor of Leonard Fuchs by Charles Plumier, who discovered the plant in 1695 in the Dominican Republic and published it in his catalog of 1703.13 The genus Fuchsia has more than 100 species that are cultivated for their decorative appeal; there are many national and local societies throughout the world dedicated to its cultivation and hybridization. It has no known medicinal value. The name of the magenta dye “fuchsin” is also derived from “Fuchs.”
By contrast, the name of Zinn is preserved in several ocular structures: 1) the anulus of Zinn, the tendinous ligament around the optic nerve, at which area the extraocular muscles begin; 2) the Zinn zonule of fibers between the lens and orbiculus ciliaris; 3) the Zinn-Haller vascular circle around the intraocular portion of the optic nerve; 4) the Zinn membrane, which is the anterior layer of the iris; and 5) the Zinn (central retinal) artery. All these parts were described in great detail, with information often obtained via microscope, in his landmark ocular anatomy book1 which appeared in 2 identical editions in 1755 and 1780. Considered the first complete work in world literature on the subject, its illustrations marked a new level of sophistication in the graphic representation of the globe and orbit, similar to the benchmark set by the botanical illustrations in the “great herbal,” or comprehensive book about plants with reference to their medicinal properties, by Fuchs. The book by Zinn is exemplary in its orderly exposition of chapters and subchapters, plain language, and exhaustive references to the literature.
Johann Gottfried Zinn (Figure 4) was born in the small village of Schwabach, a few miles south of Nuremberg, Bavaria, to prosperous parents. His father was counselor of the regional royal treasury in Ansbach, the town where Zinn went to high school and where Leonard Fuchs had been active almost 200 years earlier.14 Zinn attended medical school at the newly founded University of Gottingen, where he was the favorite student of Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), the famous professor of anatomy, physiology, and botany. After graduation, Zinn moved to Berlin, where the large anatomical institute afforded a better opportunity for the dissections that formed the foundation for his book. In 1754 he returned to Gottingen University to assume the Chair of Medicine. However, the department of anatomy was assigned to another professor, which deprived Zinn of further studies in this area and led him to turn his energies toward botany. He carried on an active correspondence with Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the great Swedish botanist, zoologist, physician, and founder of the modern morphologic taxonomy system, which is now gradually being supplanted by genetic DNA classification. Linnaeus named a genus of plants after Zinn, who had first described them in detail and had died shortly thereafter at the age of 31 years, apparently of tuberculosis.
The Zinnia, which is a member of the daisy family, is a genus of 20 species of annual and perennial plants with flowers that come in a variety of bright colors (Figure 5). When the Spanish first saw the zinnia flower in Mexico, they called it “mal de ojos,” which means “sickness of the eyes” or “hard on the eyes,” probably owing to its bright colors. The zinnia is a popular garden flower usually grown from seed. It seems especially favored by butterflies; many gardeners cultivate zinnias specifically to attract butterflies.
Fuchs and Zinn studied plants and flowers for medicinal purposes; today, we derive aesthetic pleasure from the sight and smell of them. Similarly, we enjoy looking at the most beautiful part of the human body—a healthy eye and its adnexa.
Correspondence: Harry H. Mark, MD, FACS, 16 Broadway, North Haven, CT 06473 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Submitted for Publication: January 2, 2009; final revision received January 28, 2009; accepted January 30, 2009.
Financial Disclosure: None reported.
Additional Information: The figures are in the public domain and are available at http://images.google.com/imghp?hl=en&tab=wi.
Additional Contributions: Special thanks to Stephen J. Greenberg, MSLS, PhD, National Library of Medicine, for his assistance.