History

Anyone for a corneal tattoo?

Museum of the Order of St John Judi McGinley, Museum Assistant
Recently while looking through our Order of St John Annual Reports we came across a list of operations that had been carried out at the St John Eye Hospital, Jersalem in 1965. Among the procedures listed was “corneal tattooing.”
Today,  a corneal tattoo is a is a relatively common  procedure, but did you know that it was first mentioned by Roman physician and philosopher, Galen of Pergamum, back in the 2nd century?
 Photographic reproduction of an 18th century engraving of Galen of Pergamum (c. 130-200 A.D),
An 18th century engraving of Galen of Pergamum (c. 130-200 A.D), by Paul Busch (engraver). Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
The physician would have adopted this procedure to correct scarring of the cornea, often a result of abrasion, laceration, burns, or disease. Scarring can often lead to the development of an opaque or semi-transparent area on the eye and in order  to correct this, Galen would have cauterized the surface of the cornea with a surgical probing tool which would have been heated beforehand!  After the cauterization,  dye would have been applied to the eye to mask the scarred eye tissue. Various dyes would have been used to stain the cornea, including powdered nut galls or pulverized pomegranate bark mixed with copper salt.
Nowadays, a large number of corneal tattoo procedures are carried out purely for cosmetic reasons. In most procedures the dyeing agent is applied directly to the cornea, after which, a needle is inserted into the eye in order to inject the dye into the cornea.
Although corneal tattooing is irreversible and carries many risks, it has become an extremely popular cosmetic procedure.
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