Faculty of Health

Deakin Optometry

Optometry and the history of the profession

History of optometry

"Optometry" means the measurement of vision. The term "optometry" comes from the Greek words (opsis; "view") and (metron; "something used to measure", "measure", "rule"). The root word opto, is a shortened form derived from the Greek word, ophthalmos, meaning, "eye".

The origins of optometric science date back at least two thousand years, with some of the earliest references found in the writings of Aristophanes in 434 BC, and Euclid in approximately 280 BC, who wrote about light travelling in straight lines and the concept of the visual cone, which is the equivalent of the visual angle today. Claudius Ptolemy, writing around 150 AD, measured angles of incidence and reflection from air to water. Sir Joseph Needham (1900-1995), a British scientist, historian and sinologist known for his scientific research and writing on the history of Chinese science, stated in his research that the ancient Chinese invented the earliest eyeglasses 1000 years ago. This is supported by the writings of Marco Polo (c 1254-1324) in his account of his travels in ancient China whereby he refers to the practice of using eyeglasses.

Later research by David A. Goss, however, shows they may have originated independently in the late 13th century in Italy as stated in a manuscript from 1305 AD where a monk from Pisa named Rivalto refers to the art of making eyeglasses. Many writings from later periods in Europe refer to key concepts of vision, such as Johannes Kepler, who wrote in 1611 about the descriptions of the mathematics of lenses, prisms, and mirrors, and Christoph Scheiner, also writing in 1611, describing several observations about the eye, such as his double aperture principle, which is still used in autorefractors today. Thomas Young was the first to measure astigmatism in 1801, and George Biddell Airy is credited with being the first to design and wear a sherocylindrical lens to correct astigmatism in 1827.

Interestingly, some of the first spectacle frames were made in Europe from leather and wood, and the profession of optometry actually evolved from various occupational groups such as jewellers, 'sight-testing opticians' and watch makers. Over the years, professional societies developed but it was not until 1913 that formal registration was required to practise.

In Australia opticians began to form professional societies during the period 1905 to 1920, and in December 1918, delegates from four States met in Melbourne and formed a federated body known as “The Australian Optometrical Association”. The delegates recommended that an educational syllabus be drawn up and the first monthly optical publication was proposed with a view to replacing the practice of placing supplements in trade journals. This marks the beginning of a professional identity emerging in Australia, and codes of conduct and behaviour were formulated with a view to gaining professional registration.

In 1909 the first optometric course was established by the Institute of Ophthalmic Opticians of Queensland, with other states following this lead. Although it would be many years before optometry could be called a legitimate clinical science, the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS), at its Congress in 1939, included a session dedicated to Optometry, marking a turning point for the profession within Australia.

In 1975, optometric services were included in the Medicare schedule and since that time, optometry has grown to the point that it now performs over 75% of all eye care examinations in Australia. Optometry covers an enormous range of things from the common (like measuring the eyes for spectacles) to the less common (like measuring how well the eyes can track the ball during a game of tennis). The modern practice of optometry encompasses the assessment of the human eye and visual system, as well as the management of patients with conditions of the eye and visual system. Optometrists in Australia can refer directly to eye surgeons (ophthalmologists), as well as co-manage patients with ophthalmologists and general practitioners, and many optometrists are endorsed to prescribe medication to treat eye disease.


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5th July 2011