Thomas Jefferson’s Lenses

The Becker Archives holds a letter written by President Thomas Jefferson. This handwritten letter concerning Jefferson’s spectacles was given to Dr. Eugene Opie, dean of Washington University School of Medicine, in 1915. The letter was generously donated by William K. Bixby, was a frequent benefactor and long-time supporter of Washington University.

Jefferson’s letter, dated Dec. 26, 1814, was sent to John McAllister, an optician in Philadelphia. McAllister had crafted several sets of Jefferson’s lenses that were purchased during his second presidential term. Several years had passed since Jefferson bought the lenses and he had only just begun to use one of the sets McAllister had made. As he began using this particular set regularly, he found that a few didn’t work as desired. In the letter, Jefferson explains, in his eloquent style, what he perceives to be the problem and asks McAllister to repair the faulty lenses.


I enclose you a pair of spectacle frames with their complete set of glasses, which is one of 3 or 4 sets you were so kind as to furnish me with several years ago. It is lately only that I have called them into use. I found the glasses actually in them render a perfect vision, but on changing them for any of the other numbers, the object is entirely confused. I know I have not mismatched the other numbers because, for fear of that, I have made it a point never to take out two numbers at the same time, but always to pick up one pair before I took out another. I am obliged therefore to ask your rectifying hand to them, and when you shall have put them to rights, to return them to me by mail by which conveyance I send them to you. I occasionally have to remit small sums to Philadelphia for books, newspapers, etc., and will take care to add your bill to my first remittance. Accept the assurance of my esteem and respect.

Th. Jefferson