Saving people's sight for 65 years

Sunday 8 February 2015

A black and white photograph of Harold Ridley. He is a white man with short white hair and glasses. He is wearing a dark suit

Sunday 8 February marks the 65th anniversary of the invention of modern cataract surgery, which has saved the sight of more than 200 million people worldwide. The practice was developed by Sir Harold Ridley, an ophthalmologist at St Thomas’ Hospital.

Although cataract surgery had existed in various forms since 1000BC, the only treatment for a cataract until 1950 was to surgically remove the cloudy lens of the eye, replacing its function with powerful ‘milk bottle’ thick glasses.

However, Sir Harold Ridley made a groundbreaking discovery when working with a patient who had been a Second World War fighter pilot. This RAF veteran had come under enemy fire and had shards of his plane’s Perspex canopy embedded in his eyes.

Sir Harold Ridley noticed that, unlike most foreign bodies, the eye did not reject Perspex. He then used this discovery to build Perspex lens implants for cataract treatment. The first successful lens implant operation was carried out on 8 February 1950.

At the time this was a new and radical concept. Today it is the most common eye operation in the world. 300,000 cataract operations are carried out in the UK every year and the Ridley Clinic at St Thomas’ Hospital carries out 70-100 cataract operations each week.

Dr Laura de Benito, consultant ophthalmologist at Guy’s and St Thomas’, says: “It’s an honour to practise here where modern cataract surgery started. The main development since then is that we’ve been able to make such a delicate surgery - working within a 3-5 millimetre eye space - quite straightforward.

“Placing a lens in the fine and fragile structures of the eye is done in 15 minutes with local anaesthetic and no stitches. The patient doesn’t feel any pain and they can resume normal life and vision the following day.”

Last updated: March 2022

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