Chances are, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time studying images of Julia Grant. But if you have, you may have noticed that nearly all representations of Ulysses S. Grant’s wife (the pair met in 1844 and married in August 1848) were taken or painted from a side profile. That’s because Julia was born with a condition called strabismus, a disorder—more commonly known as “crossed eyes”—that prevents both eyes from lining up in the same direction. When she was younger, one of the best surgeons in the country offered to perform the simple operation that would fix them. Julia wasn’t keen on surgery, however, and declined.
Decades later, Julia changed her mind. “Now that my husband had become so famous I really thought it behooved me to try to look as well as possible,” she explained in her autobiography.
Her appearance bothered her so much that Julia was willing to overcome her fear of surgery. She consulted the same doctor who had offered to help her so many years earlier, but he informed her that it was too late to correct the condition.
When General Grant found out his wife was trying to change her eyes, he asked why on Earth she would consider such a thing. She explained her reasoning, saying, “Why, you are getting to be such a great man, and I am such a plain little wife. I thought if my eyes were as others are I might not be so very, very plain, Ulys; who knows?”
Grant was horrified. “Did I not see you and fall in love with you with these same eyes?” he asked. “I like them just as they are, and now, remember, you are not to interfere with them. They are mine, and let me tell you, Mrs. Grant, you had better not make any experiments, as I might not like you half so well with any other eyes.”
Though she put the idea of surgery to rest, from that point on, the first lady was careful about how she posed for pictures.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.