'The Eyes of Texas' stare down JBSA-Randolph history

  • Published
  • By Alex Salinas
  • Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Public Affairs
A piece of Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph history published in a national news organization's Internet slideshow last June, and after further investigation, turned out to be more than meets the eye.

In an MSN compilation titled "50 weird inventions," a black-and-white photo included the caption, "This plastic mechanical eyeball was created in 1948 for medical instruction by the U.S. Air Force School of Aviation and Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas."

Initial searches on the Internet returned no information about the conspicuously large, lifelike eye, which then required archival digging from Air Force historians abroad.

The "weird" invention, called an ophthalmotrope, was actually composed of two beach ball-sized eyeballs and, contrary to MSN's caption, was likely produced in 1946 - a year before the Air Force came into existence.

The MSN snippet also implied the Air Force's ophthalmotrope was the first of its kind, but an original model was actually invented by Christian Georg Theodore Ruete in 1845.

Despite improved documentation standards in the 20th century, much of the story behind JBSA-Randolph's unblinking eyes remains a mystery.

In "Medical Support of the Army Air Forces in World War II," written by Mae Mills Link and Hubert A. Coleman in 1955 to "present a unified narrative of the total performance of the AAF medical service in support of the Air Forces combat mission," the ophthalmotrope is mentioned once in the 1,027-page historical document.

"A motor driven ophthalmotrope was developed at the school for teaching normal muscle balance and muscle imbalance, as well as the anatomy and physiology of the extra-ocular muscles," according to the document.

This passage includes a footnote citing a separate report from 1946, which likely means the mechanical eyes existed when the Air Force's direct predecessor, the Army Air Force (1941-1947), was still operational.

The aforementioned school refers to the School of Aviation Medicine, housed at Randolph from 1931 to 1959 before relocating to Brooks Air Force Base, Erin Rice, Air Education and Training Command History Office Pathways intern, said.

"In 1945, the school merged with the School of Air Evacuation (at Bowman Field, Ky.) and expanded its teachings to include aeromedical evacuation concepts for nurses, medical technicians and physicians," Rice said. "It also was involved in aeromedical research and did tests to see if humans could travel to space."

During and after World War II's advancements in aerial warfare, the military's renewed interest in aviation medicine sanctioned a curriculum at Randolph's school devoted to studying the eyes.

"Due to the war development, new subjects were added to the didactic portion of the course such as treatment of burns of the eyes and eyelids; treatment of gas injuries to the eyes, immediate treatment of trauma of the face, eye and eyelids; and night vision and dark adaptation.

"Aviation medical examiners on duty in the field with the combat forces needed practical training in the treatment of these injuries and conditions and it was necessary for the School to modify its program to train them to care properly for the men in their charge," according to Link's and Coleman's document.

Other written information on the ophthalmotrope was not found except for captioned photos.

Shari Christy, Air Force Research Lab History Office contract archivist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, located a 1949 image of the apparatus in use as an instructional aid to a full classroom.

She also obtained front- and rear-view images of the eyes, which appear attached to mounted rods and stretch bands, and a September 1968 picture of President Lyndon B. Johnson standing next to them with "The Eyes of Texas" labeled below them.

The remaining captioned photo discovered by Ray Ortensie, command curator for Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, was published in September 1969 by U.S. Air Force Medical Digest magazine.

"Although still a valuable teaching aid, the ophthalmotrope is a well-loved antique by Air Force standards," the magazine caption reported.

"The late 1940s saw the beginning of the jet age, therefore new research was conducted to see just how much a human body could handle going at faster speeds," Rice said. "I really don't know much about the ophthalmotrope, but I would say it was a product of its time in respect to the continued research on how aviation, and even the possibility of space flight, affected the human body."

Exactly when the eyes were retired from medical instruction and where they are now is unknown.

They were last displayed at the Brooks City-Base Air Force Museum of Aerospace Medicine, which closed in 2011, Rice said.

David Bailey, Franzello Aeromedical Library director at the School of Aeromedical Library, said how thoroughly something is documented is oftentimes a matter of discretion.

"Sometimes, people don't know they're making history, so they don't write anything down," he said. "What's interesting to us 50 or 60 years later might not have been as interesting to people back then."