Samuel Pepys kept a diary for just nine years. Thankfully for historians—if not for Pepys, who saw some pretty horrible stuff—they were nine very eventful years.
Pepys’s diary, which the British Library writes is “probably the most famous diary in the English language,” gives a firsthand account of big events like the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London. But it also includes everyday domestic details, giving historians insight into how ordinary people lived and thought during the turbulent years of the British civil war. He wrote candidly about his many infidelities and also the minutiae of daily life. But then Pepys stopped writing, on this day in 1669.
The reason: eye strain had caused Pepys to believe he was going blind. The nine years of writing had made the pain so bad, he writes, “as to undo my eyes almost every time that I take a pen in my hand.” Giving up his diary and losing his eyesight felt almost like dying, he wrote. “The good God prepare me!” his diary concludes.
But Pepys didn’t lose his eyesight after all. He lived another 34 years, never writing in his diary again. Writing for The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Jeannine Kerwin explains how his post-diary life went:
[It was] full of accomplishments, well earned promotions, political perils, and an assortment of interestingly diverse characters. Sam would find himself surviving the reigns of Charles II, James II and William III and would see James’s daughter Anne find her way to the throne. Along the way he would continue to excel in his naval accomplishments, assorted MP positions, his role in the establishment of the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital, his Fellowship and role as President of the Royal Society, among the highlights. He would welcome new friends and bid sad farewells to many of those we came to know so well in his Diary.
Among those who Pepys lost was his wife Elizabeth Pepys, who died of typhoid just months after he stopped his diary.
“Pepys had sought the best medical and optical advice available at the time and tried many ingenious treatments, all to little avail,” write an interdisciplinary team of opthamologists and historians in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They offer a modern diagnosis for Pepys’s eye problems, made possible by “the extraordinary detail with which Pepus records his ocular complaints.” Pepys mentions his eye problems more than 100 times in the diary, they write.
The modern researchers aren’t the first to try and figure out what was wrong with the diarist’s eyes. And, as Smithsonian has written about before, the practice of diagnosing historical figures is a fraught one. The team acknowledges that their diagnosis is speculative at best. But their conclusion is that several factors went into his eye strain (medically called ‘asthenopia’): everything from uncorrected astigmatism to sinus inflammation and “an obsessional personality.”
Whatever the reason, it’s too bad for historians, and for Pepys, who clearly loved writing in his journal, that he was unable to continue. But the record he did leave is an invaluable snapshot into the life of a fascinating man living a relatively ordinary life in a London in rapid change.