The vision of William Porterfield

Nicholas J. WADE
University of Dundee, Scotland

Relatively little is known about William Porterfield (ca. 1696-1771) despite the fact that he was Librarian and Secretary of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh from 1722-1725 and President from 1748-1752. We know much more about his contributions to visual neuroscience. Between holding these posts he wrote two long articles on eye movements in the Edinburgh Medical Essays and Observations of 1737 and 1738. The first essay was addressed to what he called the external motions of the eye; he described the scanning movements of the eye the ways the eyes move together. The second was directed to its internal motions; he coined the term ‘accommodation’, examined it in an aphakic individual, and invented the optometer. However, their scope was broader than motions of the eye, since much more space was devoted to perception than to anatomy.

Twenty years later he published his two-volume Treatise of the Eye, the Manner and Phænomena of Vision. Volume 1 contains accounts of the gross anatomy of the eye and its attendant structures, the properties of light and image formation, theories of accommodation, and his experiments with the optometer. Volume 2 is on vision: it commences with further reflections on accommodation and progresses to myopia and presbyopia, variations of pupil size, and eye movements; it ends with the phenomena of vision - binocular single vision, colour, size, distance and shape perception, and motion. The Treatise presented a survey of the then contemporary knowledge of vision and the eye, and placed them in comparative and historical contexts.

Between writing the essays and the Treatise, Porterfield had a leg amputated; he provided an account of the phantom limb experiences and gave them a theoretical interpretation. This was the first self-report of the phenomenon by a physician.


Symposium I: 18th and 19th Century Edinburgh Neuroscience
Thursday, 7 July 2005, 10.00 am - 1.00 pm

Tenth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Tenth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

St. Andrews, Scotland, 2005