Ophthalmology, the study of the eye, is one of the most important specialties in medical science. Though we have always understood the importance of the eye, progress in this specialty has come in quantum leaps thanks to new technologies. In this brief history of ophthalmology, you’ll learn how the study of the eye became the extensive discipline it is today.
Ophthalmology in Antiquity
Our first written record of treating the human eye is inscribed upon the papyrus scrolls of ancient Egypt. While the Egyptians had rudimentary concepts of afflictions of the eye, they did not yet have a comprehensive understanding of the parts of the eye and how they worked together. One such scroll, which scholars believe dates to circa 1500 B.C., suggests a variety of animal and mineral-based ointments as treatments for trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eye, as well as for cataracts. Egyptian developments in eye care would inform other adjacent civilizations, such as the ancient Greeks.
An Early Treatment for Cataracts
Later, in ancient India, the great physician Sushruta documented a treatment for cataracts, or the clouding of the eye’s natural lens. This treatment involved physically submerging the lens deep into the eye with the use of a needle and forcing the resultant phlegm out through the nose, leaving the patient without a lens. This procedure, known as “couching,” dates to the 8th century B.C., and while it is primitive by today’s standards, at the time it represented a significant development in treating vision loss.
The greatest leap forward in ophthalmology was the development of the ophthalmoscope, which allows doctors to look closely within the eye in order to observe and diagnose. German doctor Hermann von Helmholtz invented the device in 1851, building upon previous attempts to better inspect the eye, including one developed by renowned English scientist Charles Babbage. Thanks to the ophthalmoscope, doctors can examine the retina and other parts of the eye at up to 15 times magnification.
Vaguely understood since ancient Greece and widely diagnosed since the 1600s, glaucoma is the progressive loss of vision due to pressure upon the optic nerve. But it was not until the 20th century that ophthalmologists realized that elevated pressure of intraocular fluid was most often the root cause of glaucoma. The tonometer, a device that measures this pressure, was a breakthrough in ophthalmology, allowing eye doctors to identify high intraocular pressure and work quickly to relieve it. Tonometers today come in a variety of models, from the traditional Goldman applanation tonometers to handheld alternatives that make direct contact or use air puffs to measure resistance, with tonometer tip covers keeping these instruments safe and sanitary for patients.
Medical science never stops advancing. Today, ophthalmologists are exploring the expanded use of robotics, preventive care for cataracts, and the use of atropine to delay the onset of myopia. Ophthalmologists’ work is never done, ensuring that any brief history of ophthalmology can always get a little longer.