History of the O: on origins, ophthalmia, and peculiar ancient remedies

Posted by: West Georgia Eye Care Center in Frontpage Article on June 12, 2015

Are you a historian (or etymologist) at heart? This week’s blog is for you.

If we travel back to ancient Greece, we can trace the origin of the “O” monikers used for today’s eye professionals and paraprofessionals. The present-day “O”s of eye care (e.g. ophthalmologist, optometrist, optician, ocularist, among others) derive from the Greek words opsis, meaning “view,” and ophthalmos, meaning “the eye,” or originally, “the seeing.”


In most ancient civilizations, selecting someone to care for your eyes was pretty straightforward, with a typical ratio of one physician per one region. Today, however, we are flooded with options, and the process of choosing a medical professional can be a confusing one. Here’s a primer of today’s Os of eye care:

The optician is trained to dispense your corrective lenses and may give you a sample of over-the-counter artificial tears but cannot diagnose or prescribe.

The optometrist is able to prescribe but does not perform surgery.

The ophthalmologist is licensed to diagnose, prescribe, and treat both surgically and non-surgically.


Historically, an eye practitioner’s role encompassed all of the above. Treatment often included elaborate home-brewed medication and a lengthy recovery period. Below is a fascinating remedy proposal for ophthalmia, the earliest term for eye disease, as recorded in George Bartisch’s Ophthalmodouleia: das ist Augendienst:

One should prepare and simmer the wood drink for the chronic eye fluxes:1 gram Guaiac wood, Lignum Guaiacum, finely shredded, 1/2 gram Guaiac wood bark, 3 grams Eyebright [flowering plant, bloom resembles a bloodshot eye, thus believed to cure eye ailments and possibly boost mental clarity], 3 grams Juniper berries [believed to increase stamina, and widely used by Olympic athletes in ancient Greece], 2 grams Galingale [in the ginger family], 2 grams Valerian [plant used both as a perfume and to treat insomnia].The patient should have this as his usual drink at and between meals and drink this when and in quantity as he wants/ Every other morning the patient should drink on an empty stomach and then sweat for two hours. The sweating should continue for the next six to eight weeks…Every fourteen days the patient should be purged, bled and cupped.”

(Bartisch, German physician and Saxony court ocularist, 1583)


Just imagine two solid months of 120-minute sweat sessions (not to mention the unsavory sawdust cocktail!) to cure an eye malady! This ought to inspire gratitude in all of us for the epic advances in ophthalmic specialization, knowledge and technology.