Braille Monitor                                                                                July 1986


Thomas Elmer Moon History and its Echos in the Present

by Charles S. Brown

(Note: Mr. Brown is a member of the National Board of the National Federation of the Blind and is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. This article was adapted from a speech given before the 1985 convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia in Norfolk.)

In his 1973 banquet address to the National Federation of the Blind convention in New York City, Kenneth Jernigan discussed the truth about the role of blind people in history. The speech was entitled "Blindness: Is History Against Us."

Toward the beginning of his speech, Dr. Jernigan stated that the lesson people commonly derive from the standard treatment of the blind by most historians is that "the blind have always been dependent upon the wills and mercies of others. We have been the people things were done to--and, occasionally, the people things were done for--but never the people who did for themselves. In effect, according to this account, we have no history of our own--no record of ctive participation or adventure or accomplishment. . ."

"Nonsense," continued Dr. Jernigan. 'That is not fact but fable. That is net truth but a lie. In reality the ccomplishments of blind people through Lne centuries have been out of all proportion to their numbers."

Dr. Jernigan then proceeded to detail the accomplishments of a number of prominent blind historical figures. It is important that we continuously remind ourselves of the ture roles blind people have played in history. Otherwise, the myth of the blind as the people things were done to might start to creep back into our thinking and subtly influence the way we think and live today.

Thomas Elmer Moon was an engineer. For most of his life he was a sighted engineer, but his greatest accomplishments were realized in later life when he became a blind engineer.

A Philadelphia native, Mr. Moon studied engineering at Tufts University and the University of Pennsylvania. He never saw the need to get a degree. As he later said, he took what he wanted from these institutions.

Mr. Moon served in the army in World War I--entering as a private and rising to the rank of captain.

After the war he embarked on a distinguished career as an engineer and inventor, working for such corporations as General Electric and Western Electric. At the height of his career with Western Electric--in his mid-fifties--Mr. Moon went blind from glaucoma.

Like many people who become blind in later life, Mr. Moon took early retirement. In fact, he and his wife moved to Florida, where he intended to live on his pension. But he did not stay retired for very long. Encouraged by his wife, Margarite, he was soon back at work making good money inventing. He invented a longer lasting soldering iron, which he sold to manufacturing concerns. This invention proved to be very profitable. However, Mr. Moon was anxious to make a more direct contribution to other people. His glaucoma had caused him to learn a good deal about the eye. He saw a need for vast improvements in the instruments used in eye surgery at that time--the late 1940's.

Surgical instruments then in use for corneal transplant operations were simply not precise enough. The circular knives--called trephines--used in such operations did not give the surgeons sufficient control to be sure that transplanted corneas fit precisely or that the trephine did not make too deep a cut into the eye.

In order to do the work necessary to develop better trephines and related surgical devices, Mr. Moon founded the Margarite Barr Moon Foundation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the 1940's. He then went out and raised the needed money for the foundation. He carved the prototypes in wood, arranged for testing, procured the test animals--and, in short, did what was necessary to bring what was later to be called the "Moon Trephine" into being.

A primary feature of the new Moon Trephine was that the edge was ground sharp from the inside. Until that time trephine edges had been ground sharp from the outside so there was no assurance of the perfect disc-shaped surgical cut obtainable from the Moon Trephine. The Moon Trephine also incorporated a shoulder to assure precise control of the depth of incisions. His device also used a better grade of metal than the previous instruments.

In addition to the trephine, Mr. Moon also developed a wide range of related surgical instruments, including a suction device to support the cornea during surgery.

In a very real sense, Mr. Moon was the father of modern cornea transplant surgery--by making what had been a very risky operation much safer and more routine.

In 1961 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers presented its highly prestigious Holly Medal to Mr. Moon in recognition of the development of his surgical instruments. At that occasion he told a reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin that he did not think his blindness made his accomplishments any more remarkable than if achieved by a sighted person. He referred to such notions as "a lot of hoopla." He told the reporter: "I'm just a good engineer. Any other good engineer could have done what I did." Many thousands of sighted people can now be thankful that Thomas Elmer Moon was such a good engineer and did what he did for them.

Oddly enough, many of these same sighted people undoubtedly have negative attitudes about blindness as they consider themselves so fortunate to have their eyesight as a result of a successful corneal transplant. It might be interesting to know what their attitudes about blindness would be if they were to learn the historical truth about who actually made their eyesight possible for them.

As Federationists, we do know the truth about blindness and the truth about what blind people have accomplished. We often say "we know who we are," but we must continue to do everything we can to see to it that the public will no longer live in ignorance about us.

Finally, it is worth noting that Thomas Elmer Moon's story includes an echo in our own place and time. In 1966 Mr. Moon moved to Norfolk, Virginia, and lived for the remainder of his life with his daughter, Maggie Lowrance, and her family. Needless to say, Maggie Lowrance knows the truth about blindness. It is therefore no accident that, although sighted herself, Mrs. Lowrance is an active member of the Tidewater Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia.