Recent investigations of hospital and other historical records by member Iain Riddell show how cases, treatment and discussion of retinoblastoma, then known as ‘glioma of the Retina’, can be traced back to Victorian times…

“The earliest likely patient recorded as having retinoblastoma was a boy called Edward Cann, who succumbed to tumours in both eyes having been discharged from Great Ormond Street in November 1860.

As did William Samways, aged two, in 1876, who was examined but deemed unlikely to benefit from treatment. In contrast, Hannah Blackwell who was ‘cured’ in 1882, went on to raise many children and migrated to Canada with them.

It is worth noting that by the 1920s the anonymisation of patient case studies was standard, so there is only a small number of decades where identification of individuals is possible.

A lengthy research paper by C. Devereux Marshall from 1897 is a rich resource for case studies. It also captures the tensions and developing processes of the medical profession alongside the dilemmas and forces that Rb brought upon the family.

The question as to whether glioma is likely to appear in more than one member of the same family is of the utmost importance to the anxious parents…

A century ago Dr A Hill-Griffith based in Manchester, England reported on two families’ experience of glioma of the Retina. He was treating children for Rb, the two mothers of whom had themselves received treatment for Rb in the 1870s/80s.

One of the children, Florence Jones, had a double enucleation before she was two in 1914. Hill-Griffith discussed his work with three generations of the one family and two generations of another, which made him consider whether some tumours of the eye were heritable.

Hill Griffith signed off his report ‘These hereditary cases seem to show an abnormal tendency to affect several members of the family, and also to implicate both eyes.’

These old records regarding glioma of the Retina are a rich resource of material, not least as they tell us about the development of the understanding of the condition within the context of the history of medicine.

The records also open up the complex task of identifying potential family lines and family contexts that could throw further light on what it meant to be a family affected by Rb in the past.”

This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of our InFocus newsletter. You can download the full newsletter here.