American Medical Biographies/Agnew, Cornelius Rea

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Agnew, Cornelius Rea (1830–1888)

Cornelius Rea Agnew, surgeon, ophthalmologist and oto-laryngologist, was born in New York City, August 8, 1830, and died there April 18, 1888. In that city, too, he performed the greater portion of his work. His ancestors, Huguenot, Irish and Scotch, came to America from time to time during the 18th century. His father was William, his mother, Elizabeth Thompson Agnew.

When fifteen years of age, he entered Columbia College—an institution which, in after years, was to owe much to his labors—and, at the age of nineteen, received therefrom the •degree of bachelor of arts. In the same year he began to study medicine—after the fashion of the time—with a preceptor, Dr. J. Kearney Rodgers, who for many years was surgeon to the New York Hospital and to the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, as well as professor of anatomy in the College of Physicians and Surgeons. In the last-named institution, the subject of this sketch attended the regular course, and, in 1852, received his professional degree. Serving for a year or more as house surgeon in the New York Hospital, he proceeded in 1854 to what were then the western wilds south of Lake Superior. There for about a year he practised in a village which is now Houghton, Michigan.

Receiving without solicitation the appointment of surgeon to the Eye and Ear Infirmary of New York City, he returned to his native town early in 1855. Soon, however, he sailed for Europe to prepare himself still further for the arduous duties of his new position.

He did not, however, while abroad, confine his attention exclusively to the study of ophthalmology and otology. In Dublin, for example, though he studied under William (afterwards Sir William) Wilde, deviser of Wilde's incision for mastoid abscess, he became, at the same time, a resident pupil of the lying-in asylum. In London, a little later, though he studied under William Bowman and George Critchett, he devoted much attention to general medicine and general surgery. Finally, in Paris, where his masters in ophthalmology were no less personages than Sichel and Desmarres, he found time to attend the clinics of Velpeau and Ricord.

Returning to New York late in 1855, he entered upon a career as general practitioner, and soon was appointed surgeon-general of the state. Three years later, he was appointed medical director of the New York Volunteer Hospital.

In 1856 he married Mary Nash, daughter of Lora Nash, a New York merchant.

In his later years Agnew devoted himself exclusively to diseases of the eye and ear.

Dr. Agnew was a man of strongly marked and wholly natural executive ability. Hence it was that, first and foremost, he was a founder of institutions. He was one of four to start the Union League Club of New York City. He assisted, in 1864, in organizing the School of Mines of Columbia. In 1866, at the request of the entire faculty, he established an ophthalmic clinic in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York. Two years later he brought into existence the Brooklyn Eye and Ear Hospital, and, the following year, the Manhatten Eye and Ear Hospital of New York. He was also one of the founders of the New York Ophthalmological Society.

A part of the success of the United States Sanitary Commission must be attributed to Dr. Agnew's labors.

In 1869 he was elected to the clinical professorship of diseases of the eye and ear in the College of Physicians and Surgeons—a position which he held till his death.

Agnew's contributions to ophthalmic literature and his inventions are numerous and valuable. He devised, for example, an excellent operation for divergent strabismus, which he described in detail in the Transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society, for 1886, under the title, "A Method of Operating for Divergent Squint." His "operation for thickened capsule" is also an important procedure, often described today by European ophthalmologists even in their smaller manuals.

As a lecturer, Agnew was always simple, clear and interesting. According to one of his assistants, Dr. Charles H. May, of New York, "In his first lecture, I remember, he always laid stress upon the necessity for the ophthalmologist being observant, and he regularly illustrated the difference between seeing and observing by the following anecdote: A man was preparing to end his day's work one summer afternoon and found that he had allowed comparatively little time for catching the boat which connected with his train. He hastily closed up his office, and rushed to the pier. He saw the ferry boat in the slip, with a space of one or two feet between the boat and the slip. He made up his mind that he could just catch the boat by running. He ran, and, giving a final jump, landed on the boat, knocking down one or two passengers at the same time. Picking himself up, he was accosted by one of the passengers whom he had inconvenienced, with the remark: 'You big goose, the ferry boat is coming in, not going out.' Agnew used to lay stress upon the anecdote, saying that the man saw the ferry boat and the fact that it was not in the slip, but he failed to observe that it was coming in and not going out."

Dr. Agnew was a man of slender build and middle height, dark-eyed, dark-complexioned, and when the present writer knew him. with the remains of a raven blackness still lingering in his rapidly whitening hair. He was gently dignified in manner and even in serious conversation had a way of smiling softly from time to time, as if a pleasant undercurrent of thought were playing beneath the more immediate matter. The writer recalls with a kind of poignant gratitude the fact that his own fast-failing, but afterwards excellent, eyes were tested for the first time by this careful and courteous physician. He recalls especially the manner in which, when he had received from Dr. Agnew's hands the folded bit of paper containing the results of the test, he was taken gently by the shoulders, while a pleasant voice observed: "Young man, be there in you much or little, the glasses which you will get in accordance with this prescription will certainly prove to be a kind of turning-point in your life." Then—that characteristic smile.

Agnew was a very religious man, and took an abiding interest in things pertaining to the welfare of the church. He was never intolerant, however, but, as in his scientific labors, was thoughtful, earnest, careful never to offend and more attentive by far to the duties which he himself had to perform than to looking up defects in the services of others.

Trans. Amer. Ophthal. Soc., 1888, pp. 14–15.
Universities and Their Sons, 1899, vol. ii, p. 255.
Phys. & Surgs. of the U. S., W. B. Atkinson, 1878.
Biog. of Emin. Amer Phys. and Surgs., R. F. Stone, 1894.
Private sources.