When was laser eye surgery invented?

12 January 2021

Author: Kate Green

history of laser eye surgery

The history of laser eye surgery


Laser eye surgery might seem like it’s a relatively modern phenomenon, but it’s actually been around for over 50 years. In fact, people first realised that it was possible to correct vision by reshaping the cornea in 1896! There have been lots of key moments along the way, leading to laser eye surgery becoming what it is today.


First, let’s have a quick recap of exactly what laser eye surgery is, and how it works. At the front of your eye, you have a transparent layer called the cornea. It’s the imperfections and irregularities on the cornea that cause you to need glasses, leaving you either myopic (short-sighted) or hyperopic (long-sighted). By smoothing out the cornea, you can remove the need for glasses. This smoothing is done nowadays with a laser (hence 'laser eye surgery’) but it hasn’t always been that way.


Timeline of events leading to laser eye surgery


1896 – An ophthalmology teacher, Dr Lendeer Jans Lans, published a paper discussing methods of rectifying corneal curvature, and curing astigmatism (a condition where the eye is more rugby-ball shaped than spherical). He theorised that making cuts in the cornea could smooth out the surface of the eye and improve a patient’s vision. This research provided crucial insights for the first surgeries on the cornea, decades later.


1930 – Tsutomu Tsato, a Japanese ophthalmologist practised eye surgery on war pilots. He made incisions, or small cuts, into the cornea to dramatically improve the pilots’ vision – sometimes by up to 6 Dioptres! While his technique initially worked in the period following the surgery, it caused the patients’ corneas to deteriorate quickly, overall damaging their vision.


1948 – Next came a Polish ophthalmologist, Father Waclaw Szuniewicz, who was a pioneer in changing corneal curvature through surgery. He travelled to the US and experimented with refractive surgery at Yale University.


1963 – Professor Jos-Ignacio Barraquerr, a Columbian ophthalmologist, was the first to develop a technique called “keratomileusis”, which involved reshaping the cornea. To do this, Barraquerr removed a layer of the cornea, froze it to reshape it, and then re-implanted it. Although this method brought some success, it wasn’t considered very precise for achieving exact prescriptions.


1970 – A Russian ophthalmologist, Svyatoslov Fyodorov, came to a realisation that allowed him to build on the earlier work of Tsutomu Tsato in 1930. Fyodorov saw a young short-sighted boy who had corneal damage caused by fragments of glass. Once his cornea had healed over the coming weeks and months, Fydorov saw him again and realised that the boy’s vision had actually improved! Fydorov suspected that the cuts to the cornea had actually flattened it, leading to better vision, and used this knowledge to develop a technique called radial keratotomy. This method involved making incisions on the cornea’s surface to change its shape.


1973 – The invention of the Excimer Laser, as you might guess from the name, was a key part of the development of laser eye surgery. The Excimer Laser was developed and worked on over a period of 10 years from 1973-1983. Three researchers named Samuel Blum, Rangaswamy Srinivasan and James Wynne discovered new ways to use the laser which relied on reactive gases mixed with inert gases. If they charged the laser electrically, it emitted pulses of UV light, allowing them to make tiny, extremely precise changes to materials. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, however, that it was modified to be used on eyes.


1987 – Although there is some debate around the topic of who exactly came up with the concept of using the Excimer laser on the cornea, and who was allowed to patent the idea, the first person to actually perform laser eye surgery with the Excimer laser on a patient was Dr Stephen Trokel in 1987. This method of laser eye surgery is called PRK (photorefractive keratectomy) and we don’t use it at Optimax today, as there are now more advanced types of surgery available. We offer LASIK and LASEK instead, both of which produce outstanding results.


1991 – This was a key year for a number of reasons within the world of laser eye surgery. The first LASIK surgery took place, thanks to further development of the Excimer laser. A surgical cutting instrument was used to make precise incisions all around the edge of the cornea, creating a flap. This flap is then lifted by the surgeon, before the laser is applied to the exposed part of the eye to correct the patient’s prescription. The flap is then replaced, sealing naturally back onto the eye. This method of laser eye surgery was much more accurate and produced even better results. It’s the most common type of refractive surgery performed today.


1991 was a particularly important year for another reason... it’s the year that Optimax was founded! Our chairman, Russell Ambrose, founded the company 30 years ago this year, and we have performed more than 750,000 vision correction procedures over the years! Russell was actually the first Optimax patient to receive treatment and, thanks to monovision treatment a couple of decades later (to correct the need for reading glasses), he enjoys glasses-free vision today in his seventies.


2001 – Today, the LASIK procedure is a bladeless surgery. This is because of the Femtosecond laser which was developed between the years of 1997 and 2001, before being approved for use on patients. The Femtosecond laser acts as the surgical cutting instrument from previous LASIK procedures, creating a corneal flap with a cool laser beam alone. This made the treatment even more precise and aided quicker recovery due to its less invasive nature.


2003 – At Optimax, all of our laser eye surgery treatments include Wavefront in the price. Wavefront technology obtains a unique map of each eye and, together with other tests, allows us to tailor your treatment accordingly. Wavefront tech was approved for use on patients in 2003 and actually means that the quality of vision after treatment can exceed that of your vision with glasses and contact lenses!



2021 – If you’d like to hear more about how you could benefit from laser eye surgery, please do email us any questions on enquiry@optimax.co.uk, or call us on 0800 093 1110 if you’d like to talk to an advisor over the phone. Achieve the vision you deserve this year!

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