Early artificial eyes

Eyes to see in the afterlife...

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As far back as the 5th c. BC Roman and Egyptian priests were making eyes from painted clay, which were attached to a cloth and worn over and outside the socket, in front of the eyelids. This type is known in Greek as the ekblepharon. The same artistic skills had been applied to death masks at a still earlier date, around 2000 BC.

Egyptian mummy eyes
Egyptian mummy eyes

The eyes on those masks found associated with Egyptian mummies, often made of plaster-filled bronze, resemble cosmetic replacements but they were for dead, not living, patients, to help them 'see' in the next world. Roman statues were also embellished with silver artificial eyes or semi-precious stones in the eye sockets. A maker of these eyes was called a faber ocularius, which we should regard as distinct from the medicus ocularius, i.e. he was a craftsman, not a medical practitioner.

To learn more about the symbolism placed on the eye by the ancient Egyptians see our page on the Eye of Horus.

Drawings of 16th century prostheses

Paré drawings

The work of the Frenchman Ambroise Paré from 1579 (published posthumously in 1614) features illustrations of artificial noses held on with strings and artificial eyes on the end of curling rods that bend round the head. In 1561 Paré had been the first man we know of to recommend placing a gold and coloured enamel artificial eye into the actual orbit of a living patient, nestling beneath the eyelids though often not in an altogether empty socket but on top of the atrophied remains of the original eye. This type was known in the plural as hypoblephara.  This seems like an incredibly late historical development but then Paré did not claim that the idea was new. There is much research still to complete, including an investigation into those facial prostheses (such as there are) preserved in public museums. We can observe that there was a parallel development in the sixteenth century of artificial noses and ears, spurred mainly by the injuries incurred when fighting a duel.

The first book on general surgery to be published in English, Peter Lowe's The Whole Course of Chirurgerie (London, 1597) owes a great debt to Paré (indeed early 17th c. further editions were illustrated with engravings lifted directly from Paré's work). Lowe attempted to classify surgical procedures into five types, of which the second involved operations to add to nature that which is wanting. He included the provision of artificial limbs and eyes amongst his examples.

Artificial eyes are not for seeing, but are for being seen, being located smack in the middle of the face - the most visible part of the human body. Early false teeth were also designed entirely for the sake of appearance; from the seventeenth century Netherlands comes a description by Beverwijck of ivory teeth attached to the remaining natural teeth by means of gold wire, but these were quite unsuitable for biting or chewing. Tooth decay was presumably far more prevalent than eye loss so the lengths that people would go to conceal it are perhaps more surprising.