23 August 2009

Isaac Newton's medical research - 1666

I tooke a bodkine gh & put it betwixt my eye & [the] bone as neare to [the] backside of my eye as I could: & pressing my eye [with the] end of it (soe as to make [the] curvature a, bcdef in my eye) there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles r, s, t, &c. Which circles were plainest when I continued to rub my eye [with the] point of [the] bodkine, but if I held my eye & [the] bodkin still, though I continued to presse my eye [with] it yet [the] circles would grow faint & often disappeare untill I removed [them] by moving my eye or [the] bodkin.

If [the] experiment were done in a light roome so [that] though my eyes were shut some light would get through their lidds There appeared a greate broade blewish darke circle outmost (as ts), & [within] that another light spot srs whose colour was much like [that] in [the] rest of [the] eye as at k. Within [which] spot appeared still another blew spot r espetially if I pressed my eye hard & [with] a small pointed bodkin. & outmost at vt appeared a verge of light.

[illustration and text From Isaac Newton's handwritten notebook essay ‘Of Colours’, c. 1666]

As used by Newton, the "bodkin" was probably a "blunt needle with a large eye for drawing tape or ribbon through a loop or hem." The photo (credit) shows a "Charles I silver bodkin" dating from 1630.

Note what Newton was doing. He wasn't pressing on his eyeball from the front to make little sparkles. He was sticking a needle BEHIND the globe o his eye and pressing forward in order to investigate how the eye functioned to detect variations in color.

Anyone who feels that he/she is a bold medical researcher, please step back and make way for Mr. Isaac Newton...

Newton illustration and text found at delgrosso.com.


  1. I could be wrong as I don't remember the source of this "fact" but I was under the impression that this manipulation was not for researching biology per se. It was to manipulate his eye to understand how he viewed things so that he could make more accurate physical observations or at least understand what he was seeing better.

  2. You are correct.

    "Newton’s interest in performing these experiments, however, was not confined to making optical or anatomical discoveries. As the entries in his earlier philosophical commonplace book indicate, Newton was also concerned with the way in which apparent sensations might in fact be the product of imagination and with the question of whether what one saw might be controlled by the nerves, and thus perhaps by the soul itself, rather than by some mechanical process of experience. These were issues that bothered both Descartes and Robert Boyle, on whose work on colour Newton was building..."


  3. Here's another interesting self-experimenter, who won a Nobel Prize for inserting a tube into his own heart without any sort of imaging equipment. Supposedly, Werner Forssmann had to tie one of his assistants to an operating table to stop her intervening.



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