Skip to main content
  • Retinal Optography: Fact or Fiction?

    Author: Aubrey Minshew, Museum Specialist, Truhlsen - Marmor Museum of the Eye® 

    In the late 1800s, there was a popular scientific belief that the last image seen by a dying person or animal was “recorded” on their retina. Therefore, if one could figure out the process, one could “develop” the retina like a photograph to show that image. It sounds fairly wild to the modern ear, but is this concept fact or fiction? Let’s take a closer look.

    An image developed from a dead retina is called an “optogram” and the process is called “optography.” To a 19th century ear, this concept didn’t seem as far-fetched as it does today.  Not only was our understanding of modern medicine still growing by leaps and bounds, but photography was an exciting new technology. In the public imagination, the eye and the camera became linked – for example, the eye and the camera both have lenses, and a camera aperture acts similarly to the human iris.  In a time where new discoveries were being made every day, it wasn’t a wild idea to suggest that eyes might be able to permanently capture images like a camera too.

    A sepia-toned photograph of a man and a woman standing near a camera on a tripod. He is an older, white man with white hair wearing a tweet suit and cap, and he stands with a pipe in his mouth and his hands in his jacket pockets. She is a white woman with dark hair wearing a long black black dress with a black cape, and her hair is pulled up on the top of her head. The camera is a large, early 1900s-style camera with an accordion-like structure in the middle and a large black cloth for the photographer to duck underneath.

    An early camera, c1905

    Of course, scientists dove in to find out. In 1876, a physiologist named Franz Christian Boll discovered rhodopsin, a visual pigment in the retina that blanches in light but regains its purple hue in the dark. Boll called this “visual purple.” Next, another physiologist named Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne created a procedure that fixed the bleached rhodopsin in the retinas of dead rabbits by washing them in a solution of alum.

    A black and white portrait of an older white man wearing a dark black suit. He has dark curly hair and a large forehead, and he wears a beard and small circular eyeglasses.

    "Willy" Kühne

    According to Kühne, the fixed rhodopsin could be photographed, allowing us to see where a creature or person was looking at the time of their death. The pattern in the image below is the first optogram Kühne produced. He claimed the image was of a barred window that a rabbit was looking at immediately before it died. Soon Kühne tried to apply this method to deceased human retinas, but without success.A grainy black and white circular image. There is a white bar with a dot in the center across the top of the circle, while the bottom half of the circle is a darker grey. There are two rows of three white rectangles a piece across the darker bottom half of the circle.

    Can you see the window?

    Despite the questionable science, Kühne’s experiments quickly jumped into real world applications. Based off a fundamental misunderstanding of Kühne’s process, law enforcement in the UK (and eventually the US) tried to apply optography to criminal investigations. Unlike Kühne, who advocated taking “freshly dead” retinas and developing them in a solution of alum, “forensic optography” consisted of photographing a murder victim’s eyes and trying to identify their killer’s face from whatever patterns the photograph showed.

    Even though this procedure is not scientifically sound, that didn’t stop forensic optograms from being used in famous criminal cases and from appearing on real trial records. In 1888, British police inspector Walter Dew wrote about a forensic optrogram from murder victim Mary Jane Kelly, hoping that the face of her killer, the infamous Jack the Ripper, could be identified in the picture. Over 25 years later, in 1914, a grand jury in the US admitted a forensic optogram as evidence in the case of the murder of twenty-year-old Theresa Hollander, although the boyfriend suspected of her murder was found not guilty.A black and white ink cartoon portraying a floating specter wearing a cloak and holding a large knife. The specter has a white face with wide eyes and an open mouth, and he has long, pointed fingers. He floats in a dimly lit brick alleyway.

    A contemporary cartoon portraying Jack the Ripper, 1888

    While forensic optography is scientific fiction, it quickly became a fixture in literature and media. Forensic optograms appeared in Jules Verne novels. They were featured in the 1936 film “The Invisible Ray,” starring Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff. They also served as a plot point on the television show “Doctor Who.” In the end, it would appear that optography’s impact has been far stronger and longer-lasting in the world of popular culture than in the world of science. 

    An illustrated movie poster with four small images. The top right image shows two doctors in white lab coats using a large camera to shoot yellow-colored light rays into the eyes of a young woman in a chair. The top left image is person wearing a large silver-colored metal hood with a slit showing their eyes. Large yellow rays are coming out of the eyes. The bottom right image shows a white man with dark hair and a dark goatee wearing a suit, and the bottom left image is a city horizon full of skyscrapers. Yellow text in the upper right hand corner reads: Destruction to all he touched or looked upon! Orange text in the upper left corner reads: Boris KARLOFF Bela LUGOSI. Large yellow text across the center of the image reads: THE INVISIBLE RAY.

    This 1936 film features forensic optography