Voltaire did not have good eyes and continually complained about them.

At the age of twenty-three, he wrote to the Marquise of Mimeure to ask her to send him a little plaster which she had promised him for the pimple which had grown on his eye (probably a stye).

Later, he had several attacks of ophthalmia, which sometimes prevented him from reading or writing.  He would sign either “Voltaire Fifteen-Twenty”, or “Voltaire the Blind”, occasionally “The Blind Man of the Alps”.

He attributed this affliction to various causes:  too much reading, the snow, the north-east wind.  He described it with great precision:  “My eyes are at the moment rimmed with thick red and white cords”.  This would appear to be blepharitis of the eyelashes, so difficult to treat.

These eye problems alternated with deafness, sore throats, even aphonia.  All of these troubles, which Voltaire attributed to the influence of the Alpine air, are most likely of a catarrhal nature, and their alternance can be explained by the inflammatory propagation of contiguous mucuses.

How did he treat himself?  “The great Dr Tronchin,” he wrote to d’Argental.  “Covers the eyes of the Blind Man of the Alps with a softening ointment containing some caustic sublimate.”  This ointment relieved him.  However, according to him, it was not this ointment which cured him, but an old lady’s remedy.

He wrote to Mme du Deffand:  “My eyes have been two ulcers for nearly two years.  A good woman has just about cured me […] it was Mr Tronchin who taught me what to do and it was an old ignorant woman who gave daylight back to me.”  This woman was the sister of Mr de Cuce who, passing by Ferney, indicated this remedy to Voltaire.  He called it “Lausanne Water” and recommended it to all his friends.

The Count d’Argental, having sore eyes, praised the medicine which was prescribed for him:  Belloste pills.  Voltaire answered that cool water relieved him and that he didn’t want any pills.  “What do Belloste pills have in common with eyes?  What relation does this pill have to tear glands?”

In spite of the evidence, there are still people who persist in thinking that Voltaire suffered from mercury poisoning.  In fact, it was a scorbutic illness which made him lose his teeth in 1749.

Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C.  Voltaire laughed at the response of the Prussian king’s doctor, consulted for his condition.  “Codenius, doctor of the King of Prussia, sometimes gives me long prescriptions in German;  I throw them into the fire and am not the worse for it.  He is a very good man and when he sees that my teeth are falling out, and that I am suffering from scurvy, he says that I have a scorbutic illness.”

This reminds us of one of Moliere’s lines when one of his doctor characters says:  “Why does opium put people to sleep?  Because it has a sleeping virtue.”

Voltaire also asked the advice of Bouvard, who didn’t do much better.  He made him give up goat’s milk, which didn’t help, but which at least had the advantage of being inoffensive.

As well as scurvy, Voltaire, at different times in his life, also complained of rhumatic and gout pains.  In the winter of 1775-1776, he wrote that gout held him “tied up and garrotted for four weeks”;  that he had it “on both feet and both knees, both hands and, as a particular favour, on the elbow”.

It has been said that he never had gout, and that he just complained about it to court the Duke of Richelieu who was really a gout sufferer.  However, he often complained of having “swollen fingers”, having “pain in his writing hand”, and of being “the thinnest gout sufferer”.  He also said that his gout was “not much”, so we don’t really know what to believe.

Ninth and last part tomorrow.

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