A Brief History of Cataract Surgery

Cataracts have been a problem for human beings for a very long time, with rudimentary treatments dating back over 4000 years – the word cataract is actually derived from the Latin phrase cataracta which translates to English as ‘waterfall’, perhaps a reference to the white opaque colour.

Read on to discover how cataract surgery has evolved from basic procedures into the modern, effective treatments we have today.

Babylon & Japan


The first attempts to remove cataracts were made in the ancient civilisation of Babylon around 2000 BC. People used a sharp, needle-like instrument to try and dislodge the eye lens, and rid the eye of the cataract (a procedure known as couching). This was often ineffective and highly dangerous, with blindness a common result.

At around the same time, there is evidence to suggest that cataract removal was also being carried out in Japan. Again, very fine needles and knives were the tools of choice for surgeons.

India & Turkey

Hundreds of years later in the 6th century BC, a Doctor from Kerala in India was using his own methods to treat cataract patients. Maharshi Sushruta used surgical implements to slice and break up a cataract, before moving it from the pupil to the vitreous gel of the eye – thus preventing the cataract from obstructing vision.

To encourage the eye to heal, he then soaked the eye area in purified butter!

Meanwhile, in Assyria (now Southern Turkey and Northern Iraq), unskilled people will still attempt to remove cataracts. The Catholic Bible refers to Tobias performing a coaching method on his father Tobit, by inserting a needle into his eye.

Ancient Greece & Medieval Islam

Unsurprisingly, the Ancient Greeks were also documented to perform cataract surgery. Surviving Roman texts show that Galen of Pergamon was known to treat cataracts in the year 48 BC by using a thin needle.

It was not until 1300 years later that the next big breakthrough in cataract surgery was born. During the period of Medieval Islam, an Iraqi man called Amman Bin Ali Al Mawsili used a hollow metal syringe to remove cataracts through suction – a very innovative procedure at the time!

woman with cataracts

The Route To Modernity

The 19th and 20th centuries saw rapid progress in safer cataract treatments. Our timeline shows the most important dates:

  • 1860 – Von Graefe developed narrow bladed knives to make the procedure more precise
  • 1949 – Sir Harold Ridley produced the first perspex intra-ocular lens
  • 1950’s – Barraquer used alpha-chymotrypsin to make removing the lens safer
  • 1967 – Charles Kelman developed ultrasound to remove cataracts through an incision
  • 1970’s – John Pearce pioneered a microsurgical procedure to reduce incision size

Cataract Surgery Today

The latest technological advances have seen the introduction of the femtosecond laser. Previously only used for LASIK, it has now been adapted for cataract surgery and offers patients a bladeless cataract removal option.

The Alcon Cataract Suite is another cutting-edge treatment method. It combines an ultrasonic device to break up and remove the cataract, a state-of-the-art ophthalmic microscope, and precise real-time image guidance, to create an optimum painless experience for patients. At AVC, we are proud to have been using the Alcon Suite since 2015 with tremendous success!

A Brief History of Cataract Surgery – in a Nutshell

Here’s everything you need to know about the brief history of Cataract Surgery:

brief history of cataract Surgery infographic

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