Comes to hand yet another brand-new piece of evidence this year. Earlier it was the gold pen / pencil from Lincoln’s desk when he died; the name of Willie’s “dear friend” in the 1859 ‘chocolate letter’; and the discovery that the German-language newspaper Lincoln secretly owned in 1859-60 was subscribed to by dozens of state legislators (yet nary a copy remains today).
This time the discovery, by an eagle-eyed collector who kindly made the item available to the Presidential Library and Museum, concerns an eye doctor. The printed document shown here will be illegible at this scale to most of us, but its gist is an endorsement by Lincoln, along with 36 other notable medical and political people, of a new clinic. The clinic was run by E. S. Cooper, M.D., in Peoria, Illinois, offering new treatments for “Eye Diseases” and for club-foot in children. The date on this circular letter is Oct. 27, 1851.
How did Lincoln know this man? How did, say, Stephen A. Douglas, Judge David Davis, Judge Samuel Treat, lawyer and banker Asahel Gridley, future Congressman William Kellogg also know this man? Less surprising – or more surprising? – is that most other medical men in Peoria, 8 of them, endorsed Cooper’s start-up. Also surprising is that public figures in 7 states, including an ex-senator, seemed familiar enough with Cooper’s new treatments, or reputation, to allow their names to be set in type beneath his advertisement.
Cooper’s name does not appear in any of Lincoln’s legal cases or extant correspondence; and the Springfield lawyer was rarely in Peoria in that period, though he was just over the Illinois River in Tazewell County often enough. So the main question for Lincolnists is whether he had direct knowledge of Cooper’s skills.
Robert Lincoln was born in 1843 with a slight strabismus – he was cross-eyed. The turned-in left eye did not affect his performance in school, but kids teased him. In Berlin in 1850 the founder of modern ophthalmology, Albrecht Graefe, began teaching how to make a small incision to weaken a muscle that caused this condition. Apparently within a year Dr. Cooper had learned the method, or read of it. Did he soon exercise his surgical skill on young Robert, whose defect was gone by the time of an 1858 photograph? (Today the Graefe treatment is suggested on a child by age 6. In Robert’s case, he lost most vision in old age in that eye, suggesting an imperfect boyhood cure.)
The only study to address Robert’s malady is Ruth Painter Randall’s Lincoln’s Sons (1955), in which she blithely and unhelpfully states (p. 33) that “an old document” reveals how the home remedy of staring through a keyhole forced Robert’s eye to adjust itself. Jason Emerson, whose full biography of Robert is due in early 2012, reports that he has found no such “old document.” Mrs. Randall would not have known of Cooper’s circular, because the one found this month is the first recorded, though one supposes that Cooper mailed out dozens of them. Did Mrs. Randall make an incorrect inference about the strabismus from some other tale?
Or did Lincoln himself gain from treatment by Cooper? The 40-something attorney is known to have got his first pair of spectacles some time in the early 1850s. Perhaps from Cooper? But why travel 95 miles from home to get something easily available from any number of people in Springfield, particularly as Lincoln’s brother-in-law, Dr. William Wallace, could have recommended an in-town colleague? Or did Cooper examine Lincoln’s ‘lazy left eye,’ evident in so many photos of him?
Just when we think we see Lincoln clearly, new facts turn up. This one matters in the sense that about 2 years earlier, after Robert had been bitten by a possibly rabid dog, did father Abraham take the 6-year-old boy about 140 miles to Terre Haute, Indiana, to procure a madstone – a clump of calcified cow regurgitant which according to frontier folklore could fend off, even draw out, the poison from rabies or snakebite. Yes, the same budding genius, Abraham Lincoln, who procured for himself a scientific patent in the very same twelve month, put some store in the folk medicine of his rural youth.
Today we know that Robert did not die of rabies, though we’re not exactly sure why. We also can hypothesize that his father soon made a sharp turn away from Terre Haute and toward Peoria, toward what became a standard medical treatment thanks to a Euro-American innovator who helped set the Lincolns’ first son on his own course to self-assuredness and future notoriety.
It is even possible that law partner William Herndon influenced Lincoln. James Lander’s article in the Summer 2011 Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association details how many books on science Herndon owned, and examines some evidence of conversation between the partners on such topics. In any event, Lincoln the cultural and political Whig always sought out progress, and in 1851 he seems to have focused on a very specific form of it.