The eye in antiquity

François Pieter Retief, Andries A. Stultingh, Louise Cilliers


Interest in diseases of the eyes (probably rampant in antiquity) is evident in early medical writings from the Middle East; India and China. But real advance in the understanding of ophthalmology only followed on progressive comprehension of the anatomy of the eye during the Greek era (5th and 4th centuries BC). The Hippocratic Corpus contained the first reasonably accurate description of the structure of the eyeball (based on animal dissection) and the prognostic value of eye signs in clinical medicine. Aristotle was probably the first to give a convincing description of the optic nerve. Human dissection, initiated by the Alexandrians in Hellenistic times, established the correct structure of the eye and the course of the optic nerves. The anatomical descriptions of Herophilus in particular, were not improved on for 18 centuries. However, the physiology of vision largely remained a closed book, and the pathology of eye disease was not understood. Consequently, the treatment of abnormalities and illness of the eye remained, haphazard in the main. Eye surgery for trichiasis, abscesses, growths and small tumours of the eyelids were performed, and during the 1st century AD successful couching operations for eye cataracts were described. Demosthenes Philateles, Rufus of Ephesus and Susruta in India made some contributions, and Galen of Pergamon’s consolidation of knowledge remained dogma up to the Renaissance.

Authors' affiliations

François Pieter Retief, University of the Free State

Andries A. Stultingh, University of the Free State

Louise Cilliers, University of the Free State

Full Text

PDF (1188KB)


Hippocrates. Aristotle. Herophilus, eye surgery in antiquity, cataract operations in antiquity

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2008;98(9):692.

Article History

Date submitted: 2007-09-02
Date published: 2008-08-07

Article Views

Abstract views: 1268
Full text views: 1113

Comments on this article

*Read our policy for posting comments here