The proud history of the ‘Low Countries’ in the history of optics

Landmark contributions of pioneers in optics and ophthalmology

Roibeard O’hEineachain

Posted: Thursday, February 16, 2017

Frans Van de Velde

Frans Van de Velde

The ‘Low Countries’ – Belgium and The Netherlands – have a played a prominent role in the history of optics from the Renaissance up to the present day, said Frans Van de Velde MD, PhD, Schepens Eye Research Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

In a lecture he delivered at the 21st ESCRS Winter Meeting in Maastricht, The Netherlands, Dr Van der Velde reviewed the many landmark contributions made by the Low Countries pioneers in optics and ophthalmology, from 1550 to 1950.

He noted that it was Brussels-born Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) who introduced into western medicine a detailed description of the anatomy of the human eye. Another famous scientist from the lowlands was Dutchman Willebrord Snell (1580-1626), who developed the law of refraction, Snell’s Law, and refraction familiar to all optical scientists.

Microscopy also owes its origins to a lowlands scientist, Dutchman Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek

Microscopy also owes its origins to a lowlands scientist, Dutchman Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek (1632 – 1723), who developed the first microscope and was the first person to describe single celled organisms and the cellular basis of organic tissues.

Furthermore, it was Dutchmen Hans Lipperley (1570-1619) and Zacharias Janssen who were co-inventors of the telescope. The next generation produced Christian Huygens (1629-1695), a contemporary of Isaac Newton, who was the first to propose the wave theory of light propagation , a concept familiar in refractive surgery in the science of aberrometry. The Lowlands can also claim Franz Cornelius Donders MD, who introduced the concept of correcting astigmatism.

Also from the Low Countries was Dutch physicist Frits Zernike (1888-1966), the eponymous inventor of Zernike polynomials and winner of the Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of the phase-contrast microscope.

And finally there are two pioneers in intraocular lens development, ESCRS co-founder Dutchman Cornelius Binkhorst MD, and Belgian Marie-José Tassignon MD, inventor of the bag-in-the-lens intraocular lens.