Boston ophthalmologist, Benjamin Joy Jeffries (1833-1915) was one of the first American physicians to investigate the phenomenon of color blindness, and he began to speak and publish on the subject in the spring of 1877. This was no academic question but a matter of public safety, following railroad and nautical disasters where green and red signal lights could not be distinguished by color-blind workers. In 1916, just after Jeffries’ death, his daughter, Marion Jeffries Means, presented the Boston Medical Library with his substantial collection of research and letters from American and European colleagues, including Hugo Magnus (1842-1907) and Frithiof Holmgren (1831-1897)—all related to the subject of color blindness. The Jeffries collection was recently rehoused and is now available at the Center for the History of Medicine. A related recent discovery in the library’s artifact collection here is a mid-19th century red lens from a ship’s navigation light, donated by B. Joy Jeffries. (Ships sailing at night traditionally show a red light on the port, or left-hand, side and a green on the starboard, or right, allowing sailors to determine direction and right-of-way.)
Though more closely related to art than science, one of the most intriguing of the letters in the Jeffries collection was written by Boston’s own Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894).
1878 June 11
Dear Dr. Jeffries:
I have neglected up to this time to thank you for your very interesting pamphlets on color-blindness. I have double reason to thank you now, for I used a fact drawn from your essay in the following four lines in a poem delivered at Andover last Thursday:
Why should we look one common faith to find
When one in every score is color-blind?
If here on earth they know not red from green,
Will they see better into things unseen?
I suppose you hardly thought that your investigations would be used for so slight a purpose as a practical illustration, but I trust and do not doubt that they will serve a much more important end in keeping away from our railroad-switches those of whom it can be said truly “eyes have they, but they see not.”
Believe me, dear Dr. Jeffries,
Yours very truly,
O. W. Holmes
The poem Holmes mentions is “The School-Boy,” and it was first presented by him on the centennial of the founding of Phillips Academy at Andover, on June 6. B. Joy Jeffries returned the compliment by using this stanza of Holmes’ poem as the epigraph for his monograph, Color-blindness: its dangers and its detection, which he first published in the following year.