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Numismatic Work Catalogs Eye-Related Items
By William S. Kable, World Coin News
September 19, 2013

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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Jay M. Galst and Peter G. van Alfen, Ophthalmologia Optica & Visio in Nummis – Hirschberg History of Ophthalmology Supplement Series 13 (Paraguay: J.-P. Wayenborgh Verlag and New York: American Numismatic Society, 2013). ix + 562 pp. $285.

His stupendous volume is a full-dress topical catalog, virtually an encyclopedia, of some 1,700 items at the intersection of the human eye and numismatics, broadly defined to include everything from the expected medals, coins, tokens and paper money to some objects which just may lie outside even the broadest definition of “numismatic,” like convention badges and a spectacles-shaped political campaign pin. Many hundreds of these 1,700 objects are drawn from Galst’s own incredible collection, but the authors have also scoured a wide range of museums, private collections and publications for entries to enhance coverage of the topic.

Unlike the usual coin catalog which can be easily organized by date and denomination, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the organization of a comprehensive, some might say sprawling, topical catalog like this one presents a challenge. Galst and van Alfen have been lucky to be able to adopt the organizational arrangement of their philatelic spiritual ancestor, F.C. Blodi’s The Eye, Vision and Ophthalmology on Postage Stamps (1986).

We are presented, therefore, with 14 chapters ranging from the expected, like “Ophthalmologists,” “Spectacles Depicted as an Optical Instrument or Depicted as a Symbol,” and “Coins, Tokens and Medals for the Blind (Braille Inscriptions)” to the unexpected, my favorite being the chapter on “The One-Eyed,” with 72 items ranging from a gold stater of Philip II of Macedonia through Theodore Roosevelt medals to a Franklin Mint piece depicting Moshe Dayan. Can it be that no numismatic object depicts a Cyclops? I didn’t see one.

It is the unexpected which makes browsing in the volume a series of epiphanies, as the symbolic light bulb over your head repeatedly lights up when you realize why this, that, or the other object qualifies for inclusion in Ophthalmologia Optica & Visio in Nummis (for the uninitiated: Ophthalmology, Optics, and Vision in Numismatics).

The word “encyclopedic” comes to mind because there is so much scholarly research crammed into and between the catalog entries. There are scores of short historical essays, literally hundreds of capsule biographies, and, where appropriate, mini-histories of eye care and eye science.

Especially valuable are the hundreds of biographies of medalists and designers which are interspersed throughout the text and then indexed in a separate “Artist Index.”

The issue of indexing is especially important in a work that ranges far and wide over its disparate subject matter. And Galst and van Alfen’s “General Index” is unusually helpful, although not perfect. I looked in vain for index entries for “hobo nickel” (XIII.34) or “encased coins” (XII.127-57). These 30 encased coins (all aluminium encased cents but for one nickel) advertising far-flung optometrists and opticians are typical of the delightful and totally unexpected treasure troves to be found in this tome.

This hefty volume is extremely well designed and produced. (As it should be at the price) How often I have been annoyed having to flip back and forth from text to plates in numismatic scholarship. Here virtually every item is illustrated in color adjacent to its entry.

Did you know that Ben Franklin invented bifocals? That there are encased French postage stamps backed by a Paris optician’s storecard? That you can get an elongated cent which says “love” in Braille? That Hippocrates was an early practitioner of ophthalmology? That the radio pioneer Marconi lost an eye in a 1912 motoring accident? I didn’t, but I do now. The infectious enthusiasm which Galst and van Alfen display on every page is clearly contagious.



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