[Skip to Navigation]
Sign In
December 2007

J. William Rosenthal, MD, DSc (1922-2007)

Arch Ophthalmol. 2007;125(12):1720. doi:10.1001/archopht.125.12.1720

Bill Rosenthal was a well-known ophthalmologist, an expert on the history of spectacles and other visual aids, an important collector, an author, and a generous benefactor of many institutions. A lifelong resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, he received his undergraduate and medical education at Tulane University and was a resident in ophthalmology at Charity Hospital. Later, he received the master and doctor of science degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.

He served as president of the New Orleans Academy of Ophthalmology and chief of ophthalmology at the Tuoro Infirmary and was chief of staff at the Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat Hospital in New Orleans. Bill practiced ophthalmology for 53 years, retiring in 2004. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American College of Surgeons, and the International College of Surgeons and was a member of the Royal Society of Medicine and the French Ophthalmological Society.

His magnum opus is Spectacles and Other Vision Aids,1 530 pages with nearly 800 illustrations. It is a classic, not just as a reference book, but also for its pointers on collecting. Bill humorously describes how he began collecting while in grade school. He lost a game of marbles and traded his marbles for a knife, which became the basis for collecting edged weapons. Later, spectacles became a lifelong passion. He was certainly influenced by his father, Jonas W. Rosenthal, MD, who also was an ophthalmologist (the museum of ophthalmology at Tulane University is named for him). After his father died, Bill could not bring himself to discard his instruments and they became the nucleus of a different collection. Another influence was his late first wife, Harriet Stern Rosenthal, whose father was the antique dealer Henry Stern, who had a famous antique shop in New Orleans. She cheerfully endured a house full of collectibles. They enjoyed visits to antique shops and flea markets in the search for artifacts. Bill's collection was the starting point for his book on spectacles, which includes descriptions of frames, eyeglass cases, and more unusual items, such as lorgnettes, Eskimo glasses, and quizzing glasses. Other extraordinary items include smoked glasses that judges would wear to hide their emotions and fans made of ivory and silk that incorporate telescopic lenses, which would allow women to spy on people while hiding behind the fan.

Bill donated more than 2000 items from his collection to the Museum of Vision of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. He gave hundreds of items to 16 other museums, including the Pharmacy Museum in New Orleans, the American Optical Company Museum in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, and the Smithsonian Institution, where he served as an ophthalmic consultant. He also gave objects and endowed the ophthalmology room at the International College of Surgeons Museum.

He was an enthusiastic member of the Cogan Ophthalmic History Society and gave papers for nearly 20 years at its annual meetings. He was founding chair of the museum committee of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and a founding member and past president of the Ocular Heritage Society (OHS), which is primarily concerned with ophthalmic and optical collectables as well as history. Bill was very proud of his Cogan Society membership and his founding member status of the OHS. He attended every OHS meeting until his illness prevented it. Bill delivered at least 20 papers at the OHS meetings and several historical papers at annual meetings of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. In addition to his definitive text on spectacles, he wrote 2 other books and 60 articles, including articles in the Archives on pterygium, corneal leukomata, and spherophakia.

Bill is survived by his wife, Beth Wright Bloch Rosenthal; a son; 4 grandchildren; 2 stepchildren; 2 stepgrandchildren; and a step–great grandchild.

Correspondence: Dr Ravin, 3000 Regency Ct, Toledo, OH 43623 (jamesravin@buckeye-express.com).

Rosenthal  JW Spectacles and Other Vision Aids: A History and Guide to Collecting.  San Francisco, CA Norman Publishing Co1996;