What do Welders and Van Gogh have in common?

(Sounds like a bad joke, but I promise there is an answer.)

Recently in class we talked about the interesting life of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh had many health problems, one of which he is infamous for: cutting off his own ear. Besides that, he was also afflicted with hallucinations, anxiety, mania, and delirium, just to name a few. The ultimate diagnosis regarding his mental state was never made clear but Van Gogh also had other problems not related to mental health. One problem concerned his vision and the yellow tint that is present in most of his work. There are several circulating hypotheses that describe why this is.

(Yellow) Vase with Fifteen (Yellow) Sunflowers by Van Gogh

Some say this yellow characteristic is attributable to artistic preference. Paul Gauguin, a friend of Van Gogh’s once commented on Van Gogh’s excessive use of the color yellow stating: “Oh yes, he loved yellow, this good Vincent… those glimmers of sunlight rekindled his soul” (Marmor and Ravin, 2009). Other experts attribute this characteristic to possible digitalis intoxication, which causes xanthopsia, a color deficiency (Lee, 1981). What exactly is digitalis? Digitalis purpurea commonly known as foxglove, is a plant with tubular flowers which is now known to be toxic to humans. Today the active ingredient in the plant (digoxin) is used to treat heart rhythm irregularities in small quantities (“Digitalis toxicity”, 2019). However, back in the day, digitalis was used to treat epilepsy, which Van Gogh was diagnosed with by Dr. Gatchet.

Portrait of Dr. Gatchet with a foxglove plant

Xanthopsia is an example of an acquired color vision deficiency. The possibility of acquiring a color vision deficiency is also demonstrated in one study that examines the color vision deficiency prevalence in welders. Welders are usually exposed to a range of light waves including UV rays to infra-red rays, and are also exposed to various gaseous emissions (Heydarian et al., 2017). The authors of this study wondered how this constant exposure to these substances have impacted the vision of the workers. This study was done by comparing the vision of 50 randomly selected male welders from Zahedan city, who had welded for at least 4 years and were around 29 years of age, to 50 randomly selected healthy non-welder men who worked in a hospital and were around 28 years of age.  The color vision of these 100 men were tested with a Farnsworth D-15 test which classifies the type of dyschromatopsia, or color vision disorder, that is being expressed.

Farnsworth D15 Color Test Apparatus

The results show that the prevalence of color vision disorder in welders was significantly higher than that of non-welders (Heydarian et al., 2017). Additionally, there exists a positive relationship between years spent employed as a welder/average working hours and the prevalence of color vision deficiency (Heydarian et al., 2017). Interestingly, blue-yellow impairment is more common (although not significantly) than red-green impairment, which is found to be a common factor in occupation related color vision deficiency overall (Mergler and Blain, 1987). The reason why blue-yellow impairment in occupation related color vision deficiency is more prevalent is not exactly clear but would be a great topic to study further (Gobba and Cavalleri, 2003).

In the end, while we know that Van Gogh did not experience occupation related color vision deficiency, he may have had digitalis induced color vision deficiency. So there you go, both welders and Van Gogh have color vision deficiency in common.

References

Digitalis toxicity. (n.d.). Retrieved June 10, 2019, from MedlinePlus website: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000165.htm

Gobba, F., & Cavalleri, A. (2003). Color vision impairment in workers exposed to neurotoxic chemicals. Neurotoxicology, 24, 693-702.

Heydarian, S., Mahjoob, M., Gholami, A., Veysi, S., & Mohammadi, M. (2017). Prevalence of color vision deficiency among arc welders. Journal of Optometry, 10(2), 130-134.

Lee, T. C. (1981). Van Gogh’s vision: Digitalis intoxication? JAMA, 245(7), 727-729.

Marmor, M., & Ravin, J. (2009). Artist’s eyes. New York, NY: Abrams.

Mergler, D., & Blain, L. (1987). Assessing color vision loss among solvent-exposed workers. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 12(2), 195-203.

Picture 1: https://www.vangoghgallery.com/catalog/Painting/586/Still-Life:-Vase-with-Fifteen-Sunflowers.html

Picture 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portrait_of_Dr._Gachet

Picture 3: https://www.ophthalmic.com.sg/product/farnsworth-d15-color-test/

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