LASIK, the most popular form of laser eye surgery, has provided clearer vision to more than 30 million people since 1999. But its origins lie in research that began more than 130 years ago.  

Used to improve your vision without the need for glasses, laser eye surgery is a form of refractive surgery. It works by changing the refraction of the eye – the way the eye bends light to create clear images. But how did it first come about?

“Laser eye surgery is a very simple and quick procedure with minimal recovery time and excellent vision results.”

Dr Nicholas Davey, ophthalmologist, Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg


In the 1890s, Dutch ophthalmologist Dr Lendeer Jans Lans suggested cuts made in the cornea could rectify corneal curvature, which determines the power of the cornea, and cure astigmatism, an imperfection in this curvature that causes blurred vision. Many built on his theories, including Polish missionary and ophthalmologist Father Waclaw Szuniewicz, who in the late 1940s to the 1950s, pioneered the first techniques to cure astigmatism.

Dr José Ignacio Barraquer – considered the father of modern refractive surgery.


Spanish-born Dr José Ignacio Barraquer, the father of modern refractive surgery, did most of his research in Bogotá, Colombia. He dedicated his professional life to developing techniques, instruments and surgical tools to advance corneal transplants, and refractive corneal and lens surgery. His ground-breaking work resulted in the development of photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) and LASIK, the laser refractive procedures we use today. 


Multi-talented Russian ophthalmologist Dr Svyatoslov Fyodorov perfected the external technique of radial keratotomy (RK) after discovering that the vision of a near-sighted boy actually improved after glass fragments injured his cornea. He realised that the radial cuts in the cornea from the glass flattened the cornea.

The excimer machine was first used for laser vision correction in 1987.


In 1970, the excimer laser – a specialist ultraviolet laser – was invented for industrial use in manufacturing micro-electric chips. It was steadily modified and first used on human tissue 10 years later. In 1987, a team led by New York ophthalmologist Dr Stephen Trokel performed the first laser vision correction procedure.


Dr Stephen Slade and Dr Stephen Brint performed the first laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) in the United States. Like PRK, the LASIK procedure uses the excimer laser to reshape the cornea. However, with LASIK, surgeons use a laser or blade to create and raise a small flap in the cornea. Lasers then reshape the cornea, after which the flap is lowered. The cornea repairs itself over the next few months.

LASIK uses infrared laser for clinically superior results.


LASIK machinery has steadily evolved. Highlights include the 2001 approval of femto-LASIK, which uses an infrared femtosecond laser instead of a blade to form the corneal flap. In 2003, CustomVue custom wavefront LASIK was approved. This procedure aims to not only equal, but exceed, the quality of vision offered by glasses or contact lenses. 

Dr Nicholas Davey, an ophthalmologist at Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg.


“Today almost all laser refractive procedures are done as either advanced PRK or LASIK surgery with precise, modern and well-maintained laser machines,” says Dr Nicholas Davey, an ophthalmologist at Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg. “Despite the benefits and potential risks, both procedures are considered safe and extremely low risk. Laser eye surgery is a very simple and quick procedure with minimal recovery time and excellent vision results.”

Images: Supplied, Getty Images

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