On this day…23 August

On 23 August 1917 an iridectomy was performed on Joyce’s right eye.

Joyce had suffered a number of eye problems during 1917, including severe attacks of glaucoma and iritis. After an attack of glaucoma on 18 August, his doctor decided that an operation on his right eye was necessary.

An iridectomy involves the surgical removal of part of the iris and is usually performed under a local anaesthetic only. The operation was performed on Thursday 23 August 1917 at the University of Zurich’s Augenklinik by Dr Ernst Sidler Huguenin, professor of ophthalmology at the University. It was the first of eleven operations that Joyce had on his eyes during his life, the last of them in 1930.

Though the procedure was successful, the operation was difficult and there were complications. To add to it, Joyce suffered a nervous collapse after the operation and even Nora wasn’t allowed to see him until 27 August. The following day she wrote to Harriet Weaver and Ezra Pound to say she hoped the operation was a success and that Joyce was recovering slowly.

The recovery was very slow. By 8 September the eye was still bleeding and, though the doctors felt the worst was over, they warned that the cure would be slow. Joyce had blamed the weather in Zurich for his eye problems and had been planning to move to Locarno where the dry weather would be better for him. Thanks to an advance on royalties from Ben Huebsch, and a further sum from his anonymous donor in London, Joyce was able to travel with his family to Locarno in October. Only then was he able to write personally to thank Weaver and Pound, and even then he told them he could not see very well.

The operation had been expensive and Weaver and Pound had both petitioned Edward Marsh, assistant private secretary to Prime Minister Asquith, for assistance for Joyce. Marsh apparently paid for the operation out of his own pocket. Though the operation was a success, it did not cure Joyce’s various eye problems, and it resulted in some permanent reduction in vision in his right eye.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I edited by Stuart Gilbert, vols. II & III edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1957, 1966.

Lyons, JB: James Joyce and Medicine, Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1973.