A (Sort of) Brief History of Optometry
Posted at January 30, 2018 | by Lucas Fratzke | in Talks
A (Sort of) Brief History of Optometry

Humanity has been fascinated by light and refraction since the earliest of human civilizations. Known as ‘optics,’ this field of study captivated the ancient thinker and paved the way for all the developments of modern optometry.

Growing up in our modern day and age of science and medical developments in America and the wider global community, it is easy to take for granted all modern amenities we have access to such as modern dental care, eye doctors, and modern medicine. Modern optometry is much newer than some would think. Even glasses as we know them today, are a modern invention from within the last few hundred years.

The History of Optics

From the earliest institutions of human civilization, people have found shiny things fascinating and have studied how and why light moves through certain surfaces, and how it refracts and reflects through certain objects. The earliest known lens, known as the Nimrud or Layard lens, currently being held by the British Museum, was found in ancient Assyrian ruins and has been dated as early as 750 BCE. Other archaeological digs of ancient sites have resulted in the finding of similar lenses, usually made from polished crystal or quartz, in civilizations like ancient Egypt, Greece, and Babylon.

In the fifth century BCE in Greece, pre-Socratic philosophers proposed theological value to the interactions between rays of light and the eyes. Euclid, the famous Greek mathematician, recorded his mathematical observations and investigations on the interaction of light with objects of various sizes and at different distances in his collection of works called Optics in the third century BCE. Five centuries later, in the second century CE Ptolemy wrote a book of studies and thoughts on reflection and refraction which, like Euclid, also titled Optics.

But some of the most important developments in early optics came from the ninth century CE in the Islamic world. Writers like Al-Kindi, Ibn Sahl, and Ibn al-Haytham all contributed invaluably to the field of optics, in turn beginning conversations of work ranging from the emission of light rays, mathematical refraction, and commentaries on other bodies of work that would continue to develop for centuries.

The English bishop Robert Grosseteste, writing in the twelfth century CE, applied mathematics to classical works on light such as Plato’s metaphor of light. In doing so, he developed a sort of theology of light that inspired many after him. One of his readers, English Franciscan Roger Bacon, not only wrote extensively about optics and is also credited by some historians as being one of the first record of a figure in history referencing the use of a plano convex lens for text magnification in the thirteenth century CE.

So Where Did Optometry Come From

Optometry’s inception could be quoted as being when the first association or board of optometrists was established or when it was recognized as an official practice, but optometry had been going on for some time before it was officially and scientifically recognized, almost as long as conversations about optics.

Around 1286, the first recorded incidence of a pair of spectacles from northern Italy by an unknown maker, so one could say that optometry began in 1286, but this find seems to be a rather isolated incident that made no palpable effect on its surrounding community. After this discovery, historians discovered a journal from Roger Bacon’s mentioning offhandedly the aiding power to vision that a plano convex lens could have on text magnification. By the fourteenth century, spectacle manufacturing businesses were popping up in Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands.

The very first book of optometric principles was published in Spain by Daza de Valdes in 1623 and in 1629 King Charles I granted a royal charter to the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers in London. In 1692, William Molyneux published an optometry book in Ireland. In the United States, John McAllister, Sr. and his son opened their glasses making company in 1816.

Historians disagree as to the official date of inception for the study and the craft of optometry. Lens making had been common ever since Hans Lippershey first invented the refracting telescope but the exact moment as to when such lenses were applied to common vision impairment, no one can really point to a specific date with any historical credibility.

Though glasses-making as a profession had caught on by this time, the owning of glasses was as symbol of wealth more than just a correction of vision. A pair of spectacles could be considered a family heirloom and a symbol of status more than anything. It wasn’t for another hundred years of scientific and artisanal development before optometry became regarded as an official practice.

Optometry as an Official Practice

In 1895, Charles F. Prentice was threatened with jail time for charging a fee for an eye exam. He proceeded to write a treatise on why the United States should recognize optometry as an official medical practice. In 1898, the American Association of Opticians was formed (renamed the American Optometric Association in 1919).

Finally, in 1901, Minnesota became the first state to recognize and regulate the practice of optometry by law, with all states officially recognizing optometry by 1921 (some sources have said 1923 and others still 1924). Courses began being offered in universities as vision correction became a movement undertaken by the country as a whole. Suddenly, prescriptions and glasses became accessible to people of all social and economic classes.

From here, optometry and the biological study of the eye was undertaken at universities, schools of optometry, and other research institutions across the continent, eventually forming the industry, though not without its difficulties, as we know it today.

What is Optometry Today?

Optometry is now a large and state-of-the-art field of study. From the study of astigmatism, macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other ocular diseases, as well as other forms and fields of refractive and reflective science, optometry and the science of sight has become a standard medical and scientific amenity.

Modern optometry and glasses-making have not even been official in all of the United States for a hundred years; we have yet to hit that milestone. But in that time, optometry has become a staple in American life and culture. Some cultural movements are symbolized by a person with a specific pair of glasses, like that of Malcolm X and his browline frames, and some celebrities are known by their specific frames, like Clark Kent’s iconic black, square frames. None of this would not have been possible if it wasn’t for ancient humanity’s curiosity of light and the way it works, the way it moves, and the way it interacts with, and in some theories makes up, the very fabric of our reality.

Where Do We Fit In?

Here at Dualens we fashioned our motto, vision for all, after the spirit embodied by those early American glasses makers and other pioneers of their fields who lived their lives to best to provide vision for all people. At Dualens, we provide a wide array of quality and stylish eyewear and contact lenses at affordable prices, able to fit anyone’s budget and style.

Because glasses, as we know them today, can be an extension of a person. They are a choice made by the wearer, not only to be able to see, but to make a specific statement about themselves, and we at Dualens are committed to giving everyone what they need to both see well and make their own statement.

So be sure to check out our website to browse our styles and browse our blog posts for more information on glasses, contacts , and all things eyes

Sources/ Further Reading

D. C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from al-Kindi to Kepler, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1976)

Ilardi, Vincent (2007-01-01). Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes. American Philosophical Society