In 1815, 39-year-old Doylestown attorney, Francis B. Shaw (ca. 1776-1832) reported that he had been “deprived of sight by Cataract” for over two years. He was forced to abandon his law practice until surgeon Philip Syng Physick of Philadelphia successfully extracted a cataract by a cannula attached to a syringe.
Using this method, Physick, one of the most sought-after medical lecturers of the 19th century, “completely removed every vestige of the Cataract, and the patient was once more restored to sight.”
Shaw was the first patient operated on with this method, described as the “introduction of cataract extraction by aspiration into modern Western medicine.” He was able to resume the practice of law within three months, and that summer Shaw obtained a federal patent for the system of “Cataract, removing, by tubes.” However, the state of Pennsylvania declined to purchase the patent rights in early 1816 because the method had only been used on two patients. Fourteen years after the surgery, Shaw’s vision was still sufficient for him to practice law.
Note: Cataract removal has advanced since the early 1800s. Today it is done either by phacoemulsification using high-frequency ultrasound waves or by femtosecond laser-assisted surgery.
Source: Aspiration of cataract in 1815 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from the Digital Journal of Ophthalmology 2017