Jim Thorpe’s Eye Disease

While looking through some 1911 newspapers about the 1911 Carlisle-Syracuse game for an article Ray Schmidt is doing for the College Football Historical Society, I came across a piece about Jim Thorpe having eye surgery. The December 12, 1911 edition of The Washington Post included a special from Carlisle, Pa. dated Dec. 6 titled, “Thorpe Under Knife” and subtitled “Great Indian Athlete Is Operated On for Eye Trouble.” This was news to me. I was completely unaware that Jim Thorpe had had eye trouble when he was young.

A quick scan of Thorpe biographies revealed nothing nor did the Carlisle Indian School newspaper and literary magazine. Apparently, wire services didn’t pick up this article and Thorpe biographers didn’t stumble across it. A reason for that may be that trachoma was so prevalent among Indians at that time that it was not surprising that Jim would have had it. Richard Henry Pratt devoted several pages to eye disease among the Indians in his autobiography because it was a large problem with which he dealt.

Dr. Cornelius R. Agnew of New York City visited Fort Marion and became interested in improving conditions for the Indians. Agnew was a frequent visitor at Carlisle and a significant benefactor. On each visit, he would examine ill students and recommend treatments for them. He also treated students with trachoma at his office in New York. After his demise, his protégé, Dr. L. Webster Fox, of Philadelphia stepped up and treated students for free, charging the school only a dollar a day for room and board in his hospital. Fox treated Carlisle students for 20 years and, during this time, trained the school’s physicians in performing certain treatments. So, by the time Jim Thorpe developed trachoma, the school’s physician was probably able to do the surgery himself.

The article pointed out that Thorpe was unable to read Walter Camp’s article in which he named Thorpe to his All America first team, but was able to listen to someone read it to him. Apparently, the surgery was successful because good vision is necessary to hit a major league fastball.

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2 Responses to “Jim Thorpe’s Eye Disease”

  1. Chip Fox Says:

    Dr. L. Webster Fox was my great uncle. Since he died in 1931, I never met him. I was wondering if you ever found any confirmation that my uncle operated on Jim Thorpe? I was also wondering if you ever came across anything that detailed Webster’s involvement at Carlisle. Even though I grew up in Carlisle, my relatives only talked about Webster’s involvement with the Blackfeet Indians in Montana. Any info would be appreciated. Thanks

    • tombenjey Says:

      Since Dr. Fox treated Carlisle students for over 20 years in his Philadelphia office (see pp. 328-329 of Pratt’s autobiography), there is a good chance that he treated Jim Thorpe. I have a vague recollection of reading somewhere that he had an eye problem (as so many of his classmates did at that time) but don’t remember where I read it. Bob Wheeler is the real Jim Thorpe expert and might be able to answer the question better.

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