History of Cataract Surgery

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Cataracts are a common issue people face, particularly as they get older. An estimated 25 million Americans currently live with cataracts. Thankfully, cataract surgery is a safe, effective, and routine procedure that can restore vision quality. What many people do not realize is that cataract surgery developed over many centuries. It’s not something that Chicago, IL eye care specialist Dr. Daniel J. Tepper discusses each time patients come to the practice, but the history of cataract surgery is fascinating nonetheless.

The team at Wicker Park Eye Center would like to take a moment to consider the development of cataract surgery over time. This will offer some fascinating perspectives on the evolution of vision correction.

Ancient Greek Cataract Surgery

Believe it or not, cataract surgery goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks.

During the 2nd century AD, a physician named Galen of Pergamon used a needle-shaped device to extract the clouded lens of a patient’s eye. In the same century, the Greek physician Antyllus is credited with creating a bronze instrument that could remove the clouded lens of the eye using oral suction.

Cataract Removal in Ancient India and China

During the 3rd century AD, a procedure known as “couching” was performed in India to remove cataracts. This dangerous procedure involved dislodging the clouded lens by using a sharp object. It's estimated that 70 percent of couching procedures resulted in blindness. While risky, it was effective at the time. The Indian physician Sushruta spread this surgical procedure to other countries. Cataract surgery would find its way to China, with improvements made to the procedure during the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and Tang Dynasty (618–907).

Cataract Removal in the Islamic World

In addition to preserving many classic texts from the Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, the Islamic world was key in developing cataract surgery.

The 10th-century Persian physician Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi developed a new cataract removal technique that used Antyllus’ suction device. The 10th-century Iraqi ophthalmologist Ammar Al-Mawsili also performed a similar oral suction procedure. The 14th century Egypt oculist Al-Shadhili noted that a variation on this oral suction instrument was used to remove a cataract, using a screw to produce suction instead of the mouth.

Major Innovations from the 1600s-1800s

Several important eye care innovations were made during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Key moments include:

  • 1611 - In the early Americas, there’s some evidence that cataract couching was performed
  • 1748 - French ophthalmologist Jacques Daviel becomes the first modern European to successfully extract a cataract
  • 1815 - Philadelphia surgeon Philip Syng Physick extracts a cataract using an oral suction device

Creation of the Intraocular Lens (IOL)

Modern cataract-removal surgery truly began around the 1940s. This is the decade when English ophthalmologist Sir Nicholas Harold Lloyd Ridley created the intraocular lens (IOL). This was an implantable lens for cataract surgery patients, which could replace the clouded lens of the eye following surgical removal.


In 1967, another major step forward was made in cataract surgery. American ophthalmologist Charles D. Kelman developed the procedure known as phacoemulsification. This procedure used safely administered ultrasonic waves to emulsify the clouded lens of the eye. Cataracts could now be removed with a much smaller incision.

Creation of the Foldable IOL

In 1978, incision sites would become even smaller. The Chinese eye surgeon Kai-Yi Zhou implanted the first foldable IOL. This new kind of IOL allowed surgeons to place an intraocular lens using an ever-smaller incision than a decade before.

Learn More About Cataract Surgery

For more information about cataract prevention and treatment, be sure to contact an experienced vision correction specialist. The team at Wicker Park Eye Center looks forward to your visit and discussing treatment options with you. We look forward to hearing from you.

* All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.