Fact Sheet N148
BLINDNESS AND VISUAL DISABILITY
Part VII of VII: Some Facts From the History of Blindness Prevention
The earliest medical records known to us, derived from the ancient river cultures of
Mesopotamia, show that even 5,000 years ago medical care for the eyes was a speciality in
its own right. The Hammurabian Code, discovered in 1902 by archaeologists working at Susa,
itemized Sumerian Laws from about 3000 B.C. which included an indication that eye surgery
must have been as perilous for the surgeon as for the patient. A surgeon was forbidden to
charge more than 10 sheckels of silver for a successful eye operation; but if the
operation failed, the surgeon would have his hands chopped off.
A papyrus discovered at Thebes, the ancient capital of Egypt, names 20 eye diseases,
and the Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt in the fifth century B.C., met
doctors there who specialized in ophthalmology because of the high incidence of blinding
It seems likely that in very primitive societies children born blind were put to
death. This can be deduced from the numerous injunctions in early religious writings to be
humane to the blind. But the notion that blindness was a divinely inspired punishment
persisted, while only in rare cases such as the poet Homer was the gift of genius
proffered as a compensation.
In general, the most that sightless people could hope for was to be a successful
beggar. There are even undeniable indications that impoverished parents sometimes blinded
their own children deliberately to give them extra appeal as waifs.
Two centuries later, the captors of a large number of defeated crusaders backed up
their demand for a huge ransom by blinding 20 prisoners for every day that the ransom went
unpaid. It took 15 days. According to tradition, this tragedy inspired King Louis IX of
France in 1260 to take under his royal protection an institute for the care of the blind
in Paris, the Hospice des Quinze-Vingts (Fifteen-Twenties) which still exists to this day.
- A new era for the blind, the era of the asylum, was slow to arrive. One of the earliest
special hospices established specifically for the care of the sightless is said to have
been founded in the fourth century A.D. at Caesarea in Cappadocia. Saint Bertrand, a
seventh century Bishop of Le Mans in France, founded an institution near Pontlieu, and
William the Conqueror, the Norman king who invaded England in 1066, is credited with
founding several hospices in expiation for his worldly sins.
In 1950, at the third World Health Assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO)a
resolution was adopted on "Trachoma and possibility of successfully eradicating it by
the application of modern methods of control". Subsequently, three WHO Expert
Committees were convened and a number of field projects were implemented in the trachoma
endemic countries in the 1950s. Although successful in the short term, many of these
projects were in the nature of a campaign rather than a programme and failed to achieve
In the 1960s, it was gradually realized that apart from trachoma, there were other
important causes of avoidable blindness such as cataract and glaucoma. In 1972, a WHO
Study Group on the Prevention of Blindness was convened, which laid the foundation for
today's internationally accepted definitions of blindness and visual impairment.
- Among the earliest schools for the blind were those of Liverpool (1791), London (1799),
Vienna (1805) and Berlin (1806). Institutions such as these meant that the blind
themselves began to join forces to do something about their own situation, not only by
improving the lot of those who had lost their sight but also by trying to prevent the
sighted from losing their sight.
- In January 1975, the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness came into
being as an independent, nongovernmental organization to lead a world movement "for
the prevention and cure of blindness and to preserve sight".
- A resolution approved at the Twenty-eighth World Health Assembly in Geneva in May 1975
encouraged Member States "to develop national programmes for the prevention of
blindness especially aimed at the control of trachoma, xerophthalmia, onchocerciasis and
other causes and to introduce adequate measures for the early detection and treatment of
other potentially blinding conditions such as cataract and glaucoma".
- In 1978, the WHO Programme for the Prevention of Blindness (PBL) was created. Ever
since, PBL has developed science-based strategies to fight major causes of avoidable
blindness and visual disability worldwide and provided assistance to over one hundred
WHO Member States in setting up national programmes for the prevention of avoidable
blindness. Through its technical and managerial leadership PBL plays a key catalytic role
in enhancing the partnership of nongovernmental organizations with WHO Member States.
For further information, please contact Health Communications and Public Relations,
WHO. Tel. (41 22) 791 2532/2584. Fax (41 22) 791 4858.
All WHO Press Releases, Fact Sheets and Features can be obtained on Internet on the WHO
home page http: //www.who.ch//