Cataract Solutions in the Middle Ages

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The History of Ophthalmology by Daniel M. Albert and Diane D. Edwards
The History of Ophthalmology by Daniel M. Albert and Diane D. Edwards

Ophthalmology's Roots in the Past

A commentary on the Mujiz or Concise Book of Ibn al-Nafis, called The Key to the Mujiz and composed in Arabic by al-Aqsara'i, who died in 1370

A commentary on the Mujiz or Concise Book of Ibn al-Nafis, called The Key to the Mujiz and composed in Arabic by al-Aqsara’i, who died in 1370

Medieval Challenges and Remedies

In the Medieval Period, blindness was a widespread issue in Islamic regions, recognized as a major source of disability. Before significant ophthalmological research, people relied on remedies from the 5th century B.C.E., as suggested by Hippocrates. These included dietary restrictions, hot footbaths, and scalp incisions to release eye “morbid humors”. The first substantial research on eye diseases began in the 800s with physician Hunayn ibn Ishaq, whose works depicted early knowledge of the eye. However, a comprehensive cure for blindness was still elusive.

Evolution of Ophthalmological Research

By the 13th century, various scientists’ research and publications paved the way for the surgical technique of “couching” to remove cataracts. Couching involved using a probe to relocate the affected lens, achieving a 40% success rate, but with frequent failures due to infection and glaucoma. Despite its shortcomings, it became widely accepted as the only available solution at the time. Procedures were also developed for treating other eye diseases, such as using a scraper for trachoma and devising methods for addressing eyelid issues. While these advancements took time to refine, they marked crucial steps toward curing blindness, enabling individuals to prolong their contributions to society.

Impact on Society and Professions

The ability to treat cataracts and trachoma was revolutionary for society, allowing those previously impaired to resume their lives. The medieval world offered limited opportunities for blind individuals, and the newfound treatments provided a means for them to contribute to various professions. This not only expanded societal productivity but also laid the groundwork for improved health and future medical advancements.

Legacy of Knowledge Transfer

As surgical techniques in ophthalmology improved, so did the understanding of eye anatomy and physiology. Hunayn ibn Ishaq’s foundational role in ophthalmology, as seen in his work “Ten Treatises of the Eye,” consolidated knowledge about the human eye during his era. The tenth century brought “Memorandum Book for Oculists” by Ali ibn Isa, a widely-recognized source for ophthalmologists for centuries. These Arabic works, transmitted to European nations, established the foundation of ophthalmology globally. The dedicated research of Islamic ophthalmologists in the Medieval Period, characterized by meticulous work and “clinical trials,” contributed to a new medical knowledge shared worldwide, enhancing medicine, health, productivity, and societal contributions.

Conclusion and Future Impact

The impact of Medieval Period ophthalmological advances on society was profound. Novel surgical equipment and procedures for cataracts and trachoma resolution emerged, restoring sight to a significant portion of the population. This not only improved general health but also allowed many previously blind individuals to return to their societal roles. Overall, these advances expanded the world’s medical knowledge, improved societal health, and created more opportunities for individuals to contribute to science, technology, and society.

Sources

  • Fitch, S., Williams, L., Lady, J., Alabau, A., Bolick, M., CaitlinHall, & Leta Kate Lamb. (2020, July 29). The Medieval World and STS. Pressbooks.pub; Pressbooks. https://pressbooks.pub/anne1/chapter/the-medieval-world-and-sts/#:~:text=The%20Catholic%20Church%20during%20the,the%20invention%20of%20the%20chimney.

  • Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts: Ophthalmology and Surgery. (2023). Nih.gov; U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/islamic_medical/islamic_09.html

  • Seeing is Believing: Ophthalmology Over the Ages. (2018, February 5). Collegeofphysicians.org. https://histmed.collegeofphysicians.org/seeing-is-believing-ophthalmology-over-the-ages/

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