On this day…28 April

On 28 April 1923 a sphincterectomy was performed on Joyce’s left eye.

Despite an operation on his eyes in August 1917, Joyce continued to be afflicted with eye problems, exacerbated by his intense work on Ulysses. Despite Joyce’s fear that another operation would leave his eyesight in an even worse condition, by April 1923 another operation had become inevitable.

In October 1922 Dr Louis Borsch told Joyce that the recurring iritis, and the film which he now had on his eye, were probably caused by abscesses in his teeth. Borsch wanted to operate on the left eye, but decided to put it off until Joyce returned from holiday in Nice. While in Nice, Joyce’s eye trouble worsened and he consulted Dr Louis Colin who applied leeches. Colin also prescribed treatment with dionine – a form of morphine used to relieve pain and reduce inflammation in the eye.

The dionine treatment seemed to dissipate some of the film on the eye, though it didn’t improve his sight much. Joyce hoped that it might make a further operation unnecessary, but Borsch was sceptical. When it was clear that the dionine treatment was no longer having any effect, Borsch decided it was time to operate.

The first operation, however, was not to be on Joyce’s eyes but on his teeth and mouth. At the beginning of April he went to the Maison de Santé in Neuilly where he had ten teeth extracted and several abscesses and a cyst removed. He was sent home after about a week so that he could recuperate and ready himself for Borsch’s operation.

On 25 April 1923 he went to Borsch’s Clinique des Yeux at 39 rue du Cherche Midi, and on 28 April Borsch performed a sphincterectomy on the left eye. The sphincterectomy removed part of the iris nearest where it forms the pupil of the eye. Joyce remained at the clinic for several days before returning home.

Though the operation had been successful, Joyce was unhappy because his sight returned only very slowly. Borsch warned him that it would take time for his sight to clear but even by the end of May Joyce was still complaining that there wasn’t any improvement. Being toothless didn’t help either: though the dentist was working on his dentures, Joyce found it difficult to talk and to eat in the meantime.

His new permanent dentures were fitted by 10 June, but by then Joyce was annoyed at a newspaper report that claimed he was blind. He felt that his sight was beginning to improve and he had even been able to read some of the books and notes he’d accumulated.

Joyce left for a holiday in England on 18 June, but had to visit an oculist in London twice to get his glasses sorted out. From Bognor, where he was working on fragments that were to develop into Finnegans Wake, he wrote to Sylvia Beach to say that the progress with his sight had been so slow he given up thinking about it. And by the end of July, he wrote to say that neither his sight nor his teeth were satisfactory.


Sources & Further Reading:

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

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

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.