The Blind Benefactor – Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer was an American newspaper editor and publisher who helped establish the design of contemporary newspapers. However, he is probably better known for posthumously establishing the Pulitzer Prizes (along with William Randolph Hearst). He is also one of the most historic figures to have detached retinas, which eventually lead to him becoming blind at the age of 42.


Joseph Pulitzer, detail of a portrait by C. de Grimm from The Curio, November 1887.Copyright the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Joseph was born in Hungary then moved to Budapest with his family when his father retired. He tried to join the army at age 17 and was rejected because of his bad eyesight and frail health by the Austrian and British armies and the French Foreign Legion. He then moved to the United States in 1864 as a recruit for the Union Army in the American Civil War. After the war, he moved to New York then to St. Louis where he worked as a deckhand, a hack driver, a grave digger and briefly as a waiter.

His big break came when he joined a railroad company to record land entitlements. This led him to law school and he was admitted to the bar in 1868. He also became an American citizen in 1867. Pulitzer married Kate Davis in 1878 and they had seven children.

Pulitzer’s newspaper publishing efforts combined investigative journalism with publicity stunts which were very popular with his readers. He also introduced entertainment innovations such as comics, sports coverage and women’s fashion coverage into his newspapers which created the journalistic style that is still in use today.

In 1887 failing eyesight and his other illnesses forced Pulitzer to abandon the management of his newspapers. In 1890 he gave up his editorship of them as well however he continued to monitor their editorial policies.

Pulitzer died of heart failure in 1911 at the age of 64 and was buried in New York. in his will Pulitzer endowed the Columbia University School of Journalism which opened 1912. The school now oversees the Pulitzer Prize, an award given to those who excel in journalism, literature, and music. This has been awarded annually since 1917.

Joseph Pulitzer suffered from poor health and bad eyesight most of his life. His eyesight problems were caused by detached retinas in both his eyes. The retina is the light-sensitive layer of tissue that lines the inside of the eye and sends visual messages through the optic nerve to the brain. When the retina detaches, it is lifted or pulled from its normal position, see diagram below. It is caused by inflammation, abnormal blood vessels, diseases such as diabetes or injury. If not promptly treated by surgery, retinal detachment can cause blindness.



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