The History of Norwood LASIK and Its Not-So-Clear Beginning

Though the story doesn’t begin in Norwood, LASIK has been forged by many hands, in many different places, and tested over a large expanse of time. It all started in 1981, where three brilliant researchers in Yorktown Heights, N. Y. had no idea that they would go on to invent one of the greatest medical breakthroughs. They weren’t even thinking about eye surgery, just simply looking for new things made possible by lasers. James Wynne, the physicist; Rangaswamy Srinivasan, the chemist; and Samuel Blum, the materials scientist, were all considered to be “islands of expertise” in their fields, whose jobs consisted of laboring away in their individual labs in the physical science department at the Thomas J. Watson Sr. Laboratory at IBM. But, in practice, things worked out in very unexpected ways.


At the time, scientists elsewhere had already developed a new device called the excimer laser, which IBM Research had just acquired, and Srinivasan discovered they could etch plastics (i.e. polymers) with it. Srinivasan and Wynn speculated that since polymers shared certain chemical qualities with skin and other human tissue, the device could have a good medical use. Perhaps a precise cut could be made without causing collateral damage, in the same way a paper cut heals without forming scar tissue. The three men then got comfortable enough to try out the device on their own hair and fingernails, but none of them had the courage to zap their own skin. Finally, Srinivasan had the bright idea to bring the carcass of his family’s Thanksgiving turkey into the lab. On November 27, 1981, he etched a precise pattern into the cartilage, and the precursor to Norwood LASIK was born.


After their techniques were patented, Stephen Trokel, a New York ophthalmologist, learned of their work and realized the technology’s potential for eye surgery. He deduced that the cornea could be reshaped with a laser–improving vision for countless people with nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. The idea was then taken up and researched by both Trokel and Srinivasan, in addition to another IBMer, Bodil Braren, and in 1983 they jointly published their finding in a major ophthalmology journal. The paper ignited excitement in the ophthalmological community as a revolutionary way to approach to eye surgery, and after many years of extensive research and clinical trials, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved commercial laser refractive surgery in 1995. Since then, more than 25 million people worldwide have benefited from LASIK and PRK. Many of them have achieved “eagle-eye” vision–better than 20/20 vision acuity—and the Norwood LASIK Eye Care Specialists have helped make it happen.


Today, LASIK is among the safest and most popular surgeries offered, with over 70 million people worldwide who have had the procedure. But the revolutionary treatment of LASIK wasn’t the only great thing to come out of the accident. As result of the collaboration between the three founding scientist, interdisciplinary collaboration is now very much encouraged by IBM as a successful way to approach to advancing science and technology. And, in the coming years, as scientific fields collide with increasing frequency, the ability of scientists to build bridges between their domains will likely be one of the core competencies for research organizations.


The three men who started it all were recently honored at the White House, when President Obama presented them with National Medal of Technology and Innovation. This is just the most recent of many honors they have received over the years, but for James Wynne, one of the founding members, the greatest satisfaction lies closer to home, expressing that “The best thing for me is that I invented something that corrected my own son’s eyesight.”