Artificial Eyes in History.
Artificial eyes have been recorded in history for many thousands of years being in existence from the Egyptian Fourth Dynasty (2613-2494 BC) till the Sixth (664-525 BC) as part of the mummification process and there is evidence of their existence in Ancient Rome, Greece and China too.
However, French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-90) could have laid claim to be the father of facial prosthetics. He was the first to describe the use of artificial eyes and constructed them from enamelled gold, silver, porcelain and glass.
Paré made indwelling eyes (the “hypoblephara”) but also external devices retained with wire attachments (the “ekblephara”), as surgical removal of the eyeball was rare until the 19th century. Doubtless Paré’s prostheses were impressive to look at and highly desirable, but must also have been heavy, quite fragile and extremely expensive.
The Glass Eye.
The first known Ocularists, constructing artificial eyes from glass during the golden age of Italian glassmaking, came out of Venice in the 16th century. By the 19th century Europe was acknowledged as a centre of excellence in artistic craftsmanship, and Germany became the centre for glass eye production.
An important figure in the history of artificial eyes from Germany was Ludwig Müller-Uri (1811-88), a maker of doll’s eyes, who developed glass for prosthetic use with local people. In 1868 in collaboration with his nephew Friedrich Müller-Uri a new form of glass called Cryolite was developed. This new type of glass was smoother and more resistant to attack by tear production, thereby increasing the lifespan of an eye. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, teams of German Ocularists would dispense artificial eyes visiting towns and cities in Europe & America. However, glass eye making was still a highly specialised, time consuming and expensive business.
The Acrylic Artificial Eye.
These days the use of glass in artificial eyes has largely been superseded by acrylic plastic – the “modern” material of prosthetic eye making. Sources for the history of the acrylic artificial eye vary. In the USA tests were being done on acrylics by the American Optical Company during the Second World War and here in the UK in 1944 a dentist W.D. Barker of Lancaster made an acrylic artificial eye for his son. Theories surrounding the advantages of this material (resistance to scratches, breakage and attack by lacrimal secretions) were proved to be correct and he was soon engaged in developing his ideas and achieving his objective to produce large numbers as economically as possible by manufacturing stock artificial eyes, pressed in brass moulds and hand painted.
In the clinical environment, patients – at that time largely war injured – could be treated fairly quickly with half-spherical eyes being cut and ground to shape and issued by teams of “technicians” who chose an appropriate eye from a large range of colours and sizes. In respect of his work Mr Barker was awarded the M.B.E. in 1949.