The History of LASIK is extensive. Although the actual laser incision part of it has only been around since 1987, the idea of adjusting the human eye for improved vision has been in the works for over 100 years. It’s believed to have been started in Europe, though Japan was no stranger to daring experiments in vision correction itself. We find ourselves thanking Russia for a successful predecessor of LASIK, and we end in America, where a scientist from IBM paves the way with ultraviolet lasers that gave us the current final piece to more than a centuries’ old quest to help our fellow man see the world in a whole new light.
The first physical tests and procedures to correct vision can be dated back to the 1890s. Doctors experimented by cutting incisions in the cornea, though it wasn’t for another 50 years before the world would have its first recorded success in eye surgery. Afterwards, Japanese doctors worked to cure myopia through more experimental surgeries. These involved cutting a series of corneal incisions to try to flatten the cornea. Due to many complications with the surgery, however, this particular technique was phased out. It wouldn’t be for another 30 years that the world would have another breakthrough in corrective vision surgery.
In Russia in the 1970s, a Dr. Fyodorov was treating a young boy with astigmatism who had broken his glasses against his face, fragments of glass embedding in both eyes. To save the patient’s eye sight, the doctor made several radial incisions from the pupil to the periphery of the cornea in a pattern like the spokes of a wheel. After the eye healed, he was surprised to find that instead of further damaging the eye, the procedure actually improved the boy’s vision. By 1974, Fyodorov’s research culminated into “radial keratotomy,” a refractive surgical procedure to help correct myopia, or nearsightedness. Today, radial keratotomy is still a favored procedure of those with astigmatism wishing for improved vision.
From there, in 1980, IBM scientist Rangaswamy Srinivasan used an ultraviolet excimer laser to successfully cut living tissue without damaging the skin with heat. He called it “Ablative photo-decomposition.” His technique was used by Steven Trokel in 1985 on 18 enucleated human eyes during his time spent working for the Edward S. Harkness Eye Institute at Columbia University in New York City. His success with the procedure lead him to found VISX USA inc with Charles Munnerlyn and Terry Clapham soon after, and it was Dr. Marguerite B. MacDonald who performed the first human VISX refractive laser eye surgery in 1989.
It took another 10 years for the FDA to formally approve what we now call LASIK, but luckily took a much shorter time to become popular with those wishing for a chance to improve their vision. We’ve now see over 28 million successful LASIK procedures conducted across the globe. In the United States, between 70-80% of those wishing to correct their vision decide on using LASIK, while only 20-30 use PRK, or photorefractive keratectomy.