The Founder of the Excimer Laser

“The man who saves eyesight”

Mani Lal Bhaumik an Indian-American physicist is considered to be the father of excimer laser technology. In 1968, he was enlisted by Northrop Corporate Research Laboratory. Here he worked on the practical utilization of excimer lasers and submitted his research papers to the Optical Society of America in May 1973.

The Invention of the Excimer Laser

Rangaswamy Srinivasan, an Indian-American chemist is the inventor of the laser eye surgery procedure. While working at IBM laboratory in America, he experimented with the applications of the excimer laser and discovered that by changing the ‘rare’ gas used to Argon and combining this with halogen elements such as Fluorine produced a short pulse of UV light. He discovered that this light could be used to etch or drill into organic solids such as polymers (plastics) or tissue without any thermal damage to the surrounding area. He named this process Ablative Photodecomposition (APD). Dr Srinivasan explained, “it has been known for hundred and fifty years that the Sun gives out visible light but also ultra-violet light, it turns out that the Sun’s Ultra-violet light is the more powerful light as it is more energetic.” This is why the Sun’s light causes suntans, sunburns and can even lead to the development of skin cancer.

Dr Srinivasan thought that if a piece of plastic can be drilled successfully by use of laser technology then why not living tissue in the same way. The laser was able to produce clean patterns on plastics using APD. To further test the process and see if its applications could be wider to include the medical industry, he made incisions in human hair and fingernails. He found that the etchings made were clear patterns without damage to the surrounding tissue.

excimer laser cuts human hair

The day after Thanksgiving of 1981 Dr Srinivasan went to his lab at IBM with the left-over Thanksgiving turkey and experimented on the cartilage with the excimer laser. With his expertise in photochemistry and polymer science, he discovered that the Laser was able to precisely etch on the turkey without any collateral damage to the surrounding tissue.

It is hard to believe, but Turkey helped in the development of laser eye surgery!

excimer laser works on turkey

With the success of the experiments, he eventually tested the capabilities of the laser on human skin, using James Wynne’s (co-inventor) finger as a tester! They were both surprised that no heat or pain was felt and immediately realised that this would have vast applications, most significantly as a new surgical procedure on human tissue.

Carrie Lembach, Professor of Ophthalmology at Ohio University says that “all good things in medicine come from someone who has a crazy idea and then they just decide to try it.”

The Impact

Dr Srinivasan personally worked with surgeons to introduce APD in surgical interventions. One of the most notable applications, whose use is commonplace across the world, is the use of the excimer laser to reshape the cornea, correcting common visual impairments – PRK and LASIK (Laser in situ keratomileuses). It is a small procedure that has a huge impact on each individual’s lives freeing them from the constraints of glasses and contact lenses.

Laser eye surgery has changed the lives of many people around the world and its results are almost instantaneous leaving most patients wondering why they waited so long. “Within seconds of Laser eye surgery performed, a patient, sits up from the table and says that he can see the clock which he was never able to see before,” says Sandra Belmont M.D, Director of Resident Surgical Education, New York University School of Medicine.

Rangaswamy Srinivasan with Barack ObamaThis new form of surgery with its various applications revolutionised the medical industry and changed the individual lives of millions of people. For the tremendous strides made by Dr Srinivasan in the pioneering of the excimer laser using ablative photodecomposition of tissue and the truly incredible results produced by this new form of surgery, he was awarded the National Medal of Science and Innovation’ by President Barack Obama. Obama stated “Success depends on the ideas that you can dream up, the possibilities that you envision, and the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears you’re willing to put in to make them real”

Dr CT Pillai, AVC’s Medical Director, is an alumnus of the University of Madras and also worked in America for most of his career like Dr Srinivasan. Inspired by Dr Srinivasan‘s innovations Dr Pillai decided to continue his career into surgical ophthalmics and has added to Dr Srinivasan‘s foundations by becoming a pioneering surgeon in the field of vision correction treatments. Dr Pillai congratulated and thanked Dr Srinivasan for his ground breaking work in the field of Laser Eye Surgery. He also mentioned that Dr Srinivasan work not only birthed the world of Laser Eye Surgery but has benefited humanity immensely, given Laser technology is used in various medical-surgical treatments as well as in the field of ophthalmology.

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