Blink and you’ll miss it

How many people do you know that have had a cataracts operation? Cataract (the clouding of the lens of the eye) have been operated on for hundreds of years. One of the earliest operations was couching – pushing the clouded lens out of the way to restore some vision. By the 1740s, methods were developed to remove the lens completely.

Diorama showing a cataract operation, Persia, AD 1000 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

However it wasn’t until the 1940s, that a successful artificial alternative to the eye’s lens was found, the intra-ocular lens. While working with injured pilots during the Second World War, Sir Harold Ridley and others found that Perspex slivers in embedded in the eye were not rejected by the body. This held the key to finding the right material for intra-ocular lenses.

Intraocular lenses for the eye, England, 1979 ( Science Museum, London )

Working with Rayners Limited, Ridley implanted an intra-ocular lens made from using a plastic known as PMMA (polymethylmethacrylate). On 29 November 1949 the first intra ocular lens was implanted into a patient in secret at St Thomas’ Hospital London. In 1951, Ridley announced his work to his peers to some scepticism before it became widely used.Today’s intra-ocular lenses have a variety of designs with over 1500 being registered. Our tiny examples are on display in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery. If you want to find out more, try MuseumEye, the website of the British Optical Association Museum

For his services to ophathlmology Sir Harold Ridley was knighted in 2001.  and was on the Royal Mail’s Medical Breakthroughs stamp set alongside Sir Alexander Fleming, Sir John Charnley, Sir James Black (who developed beta-blockers, Sir Ronald Ross, and Sir Godfrey Hounsfield.

First Day Covers, September 2012 ( The British Postal Museum and Archive )

In 1967, Harold Ridley set up the Ridley Eye Foundation to raise funds and awareness about cataract. In 1999 the Ridley Eye Foundation had a tribute dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lens, you can see the man himself giving a talk about his discovery among the backdrop of our Flight gallery.

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