History of Ophthalmology« back

Ophthalmology is the study of the structure, function, and diseases of the eye.




  Paul Sternberg, Jr., M.D.
President, American Academy of Ophthalmology
Professor and Chairman of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute
Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs, Vanderbilt School of Medicine
Chief Medical Officer, Vanderbilt Medical Group

Retina Specialist
What we look for in a candidate: “a good work ethic, reliable, conscientious, dependable”



Vision impairment and blindness is a leading cause of disability among Americans. Currently, the leading causes of blindness in the U.S. are macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy, which usually start after the age of 40 years old. Vision loss affects 1:28 Americans and is expected to increase dramatically in the next 20 years. Many causes of blindness are reversible, or at least treatable, if detected early enough. This requires diagnosis and careful monitoring by an Ophthalmologist ("Eye MD"), who provides complete eye care.


An Eye MD is an Ophthalmologist. To become an ophthalmologist, must have 4 years of special training in medical (or osteopathic) school (after college), followed by specialty training (ranging from 4-6 years after medical school).

eye equipment

The “Eye MD” can prescribe glasses and contact lenses, diagnose and treat medical eye problems, perform delicate eye surgery, do laser procedures, and perform cosmetic surgery around the eyes.  An Eye MD also can participate in scientific research or help develop new treatments and technologies that can treat or even cure blinding eye conditions.

Ophthalmology  makes up 2.7% of the physician workforce in the U.S. (Association of American Medical Colleges data, 2008).


History of Ophthalmology

Vision is the "window of the mind and soul." Through the eyes, we perceive and conceptualize the world around us. Since prehistoric times, the eye has been credited with mystical connotations such as intuition, discernment, foresight, dream, prophecy, revelation, fantasy, and imagination. In the 17th century, the eye was recognized as an optical instrument.

The study of ophthalmology is linked to the study of light, mathematics, and mechanical lenses (physics/optics).

The U.S. has now emerged as an international leader in ophthalmology, but the initial evolution of the field began in Europe. The birth of ophthalmology accelerated in Europe, especially after the invention of the ophthalmoscope by Hermann von Helmholtz in Germany in 1851.
Helmholtz ophthalmoscope

Formal study of medicine in the U.S. did not begin until 1765 (at the University of Pennsylvania - America's first medical school). The first Eye hospital was founded in U.S. in 1817 (at New London, Connecticut). The New York Eye and Ear infirmary was established in 1821.

The American Ophthalmology society was founded in 1865, at which time American surgeons relinquished the practice of ophthalmology as a part of general surgery. Later, the American Ophthalmology society was renamed the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology in 1896.

The American Board for Ophthalmic Examinations (now known as the American Board of Ophthalmology) was founded in 1916, with the purpose of certifying doctors desiring to specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of vision disorders.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology was eventually renamed to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), providing separate subspecialty training in the field of Ophthalmology exclusively in 1979. The mission of the AAO is to advance the lifelong learning and professional interests of ophthalmologists (Eye MDs) to ensure that the public can obtain the best possible eye care. 

Diversification of Ophthalmology

Historically, ophthalmology was, like other fields in medicine, a profession that excluded women and non-Caucasians. The first medically trained female to practice ophthalmology in the U.S. was Isabel Barrows, in 1871. Integration of blacks into medicine was slow due to slavery and segregation. Howard University and Meharry Medical College were begun in the late 1800's to educate blacks in order to help provide healthcare to the black communities. The National Medical Association (NMA) was founded in 1895 to provide opportunity for black physicians to interact and discuss advances in the medical sciences, providing postgraduate and continuing medical education for blacks, who were otherwise not permitted to participate in the American Medical Association until after 1964.

One of the pioneering black ophthalmologists, Charles V. Roman, organized the first Department of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology at Meharry Medical College in 1904 and also became the fifth president of the National Medical Association. He articulated the guiding principles upon which the NMA was founded:

 ... conceived in no spirit of racial exclusiveness, fostering no ethnic antagonism, but born of the exigency of the American environment, the National Medical Association has for its object the banding together for mutual cooperation and helpfulness, the men and women of African American descent who are legally and honorably engaged in the practice of the cognate professions of medicine, surgery, pharmacy, and dentistry."

Johnson, LN and Daniels OCB. Breaking the Color Line in Medicine: African-Americans in Ophthalmology. Thorofare, NJ: Slack Incorporated; 2002.


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