The First Cataract Surgeons in the British Isles

Christopher T. Leffler, Stephen G. Schwartz, Eric Peterson, Natario L. Couser, Abdul Rahman Salman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Purpose: To describe the entry of cataract surgery into the British Isles. Methods: Handbills, books, and other historical sources were reviewed to determine when cataract surgery was first performed in the region. Results: Roman artifacts suggest that couching was performed in the British Isles in antiquity. Seemingly miraculous cures of blindness during the early Middle Ages might be consistent with couching. However, there is no strong evidence of medieval cataract surgery in the region. Cataract couching probably arrived in England by the 1560s, in Scotland by 1595, in Ireland by 1684, and in Anglo-America by 1751. Before the 18th century, cataract surgery was taught within families, apprenticeships, and mountebank troupes. Beginning in the 17th century, congenital cataract surgery permitted surgeons to tout their skills and to explore visual perception. However, in some cases, such as the couching of the 13-year-old Daniel Dolins by surgeon William Cheselden in 1727, whether the cataracts were truly congenital, and whether vision improved in any way, remain in doubt. Beginning in the 1720s, cataract surgery began to be performed by traditional surgeons in hospitals. However, for most of the century, the highest-volume cataract surgeons continued to be itinerant oculists, including those who performed cataract extraction in the latter half of the century. Conclusions: Cataract surgery might have been performed in Roman Britain. Specific evidence of cataract surgery emerges in the region in the Elizabethan era. Cataract extraction was performed in the British Isles by 1753, but couching remained popular throughout the 18th century.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)75-122
Number of pages48
JournalAmerican journal of ophthalmology
StatePublished - Oct 2021
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology


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