The end of the year is a time of holiday gift giving, and finding just the right gift can sometimes feel like an impossible task. But folks at an animal eyeball lab say that a gift they've just received, partly thanks to NPR, has made this the "best Christmas ever."
It's a massive whale eye, probably from a blue whale, and the story of how it ended up at the lab starts in the 1960s.
That's when a future health care executive named Tom Davis was growing up on Long Island, N.Y. He and his family sometimes went to have dinner with a friend of his dad's. "So, while adults had adult conversations, whatever they were, my brother and I would go down to the basement of his house," Davis recalls.
His dad's friend had briefly worked as a whaler, and down in that basement was a collection of whaling memorabilia. There were harpoons, a narwhal tusk, beautiful scrimshaw and sheets of baleen.
"To an elementary school boy, this was the greatest place in the world," says Davis. "And, of course, in the corner, in a bookshelf, watching me look over all the stuff, was a whale's eye." The grapefruit-sized eyeball floated in a glass jar.
When Davis was 24 years old, he heard that his dad's friend had died, and wrote the family a condolence letter, describing his fond childhood memories. "And, four weeks later, a soggy box arrives at my doorstep," says Davis. It was the whale eye, still preserved in formalin.
He did what anyone would do. "I put it in my cubicle," says Davis.
For more than 30 years, as Davis moved from job to job, he brought along the whale eye, delighting or revolting his office colleagues. Recently, though, as he made another job change, he decided to get rid of it.
"I was sitting in our open meeting area, and basically he asked if anyone wanted the eye," recalls Nathan Flacker, one of his co-workers. "I had seen it in his office, but never asked about it and was not really sure what it was." Flacker volunteered to take it.
"It seemed to me to be both cool, in a weird way, and a shame to throw it out, which is what would have happened to it," says Flacker. He adds that he wasn't sure what he'd do with it, but "I figured someone, somewhere would be interested in it."
He Googled the words "animal eye collection" and the top hit was an NPR report from earlier this year about a lab that is renowned for its collection of more than 50,000 animal eye specimens — everything from a duck-billed platypus eye to one eye of a two-toed sloth.
"We think we're the largest collection of animal eyeballs," says eye pathologist Dick Dubielzig, who founded the lab.
Flacker fired off an email to him, writing:
"I am contacting you after coming across a story on NPR about the animal eyeball collection at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. The story specifically mentioned whale eyeballs, and it just so happens that I recently acquired one, odd as that sounds. If you are interested, and maybe can offer some helpful advice on how one ships a large, preserved eyeball, I would be happy to send it to you."
Dubielzig quickly replied that yes, his lab wanted it. After all, as he had told NPR, his lab has several different whale eyes, "but we don't have any of the really big whale eyes."
Earlier this month, a mail carrier delivered a white box sealed with duct tape to the lab. Lab director Leandro Teixeira opened it and pushed away bubble wrap to reveal the eye floating in a jar of fluid.
"Wow! Look at this," said Teixeira. "That is a big eye." With a gloved hand, he gently lifted out the dripping gray mass. "Whoa, that is beautiful," he exclaimed. "Look at that, guys!"
The eye experts think it's from a blue whale. It's more than 4 inches across and dwarfs the next biggest eyeball in their collection. Dubielzig says it's the most exciting eye they have ever received. "Everybody likes the biggest," he says, "and this is the biggest."
The biggest in their collection, that is. The largest eye known to science belongs to the giant squid, and the lab doesn't have one of those — at least, not yet. It's still on their wish list, and there's always next Christmas.