Its footprint can be found throughout history, from Ice Age skeletons and ancient manuscripts to Hollywood films. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that the cause of the disease was discovered, enabling it to be treated.
You can learn more about the disease in our timeline below. For more details, view our extended timeline in PDF format, which contains added information.
Trachoma is thought to have been present in Australia as far back as the Ice Age. Skeletons found by archaeologists show some of the earliest evidence of trachoma: lesions on the skulls suggest they often had chronic eye infections.
Hieroglyphs on ancient Nubian tombs in Sudan show eyes and tweezers, which are still used today by trachoma patients to pluck out their eyelashes and ease the pain. Trachoma was also mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, a collection of Egyptian medical notes from 1500BC.
Many textbooks were written in Arabic about eyes, in which Arab authors used the term ‘jarab’, meaning scabies, to describe trachoma.
Italian friar Francis of Assisi visited the Middle East and returned with severe trachoma. He was blind when he died in 1226, although legend suggests he lost his sight because of the tears he’d shed for the sins of the world.
Moorfields Eye Hospital – one of the most famous eye hospitals in the world – opened in London to treat trachoma. The disease had become a serious health issue in the UK and Europe, spread by soldiers returning from the Middle East. Many tried to escape military service by using ointment to fake trachoma.
English poet William Wordsworth is said to have had recurring bouts of trachoma during the latter part of his life. He wrote about his fear of losing his sight in the long poem ‘The Excursion’.
Charles Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby is thought to have been inspired by a Yorkshire boarding school devastated by trachoma. The character of headmaster Wackford Squeers mirrors real-life head William Shaw, who was put on trial after several students went blind because of ‘neglect’ (although it’s likely they had trachoma).
Immigrants arriving in the US on Ellis Island were checked for trachoma using a buttonhook to examine their eyelids – they often warned each other to ‘beware the buttonhook men’. Anyone found to have the disease was sent home or treated before being allowed into the country.
Chinese medical researcher Dr Tang Feifan identified the bacteria that cause trachoma, enabling it to be treated with antibiotics. He continued his research during the 1950s: after experimenting on chicken eggs, it’s claimed he then infected himself, braving the pain for 40 days to collect valuable data. The disease was eventually eliminated in most higher-income countries by the mid-20th century.
In Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Godfather Part II, the character of Vito Corleone is shown passing through Ellis Island as a young boy during his immigration to the US. During one scene, he is seen having his eyes checked for trachoma.
Scientists published an article discussing an antibiotic called azithromycin, known as Zithromax®, which they said could treat trachoma. As part of their research, they carried out the first trials of the medication in The Gambia. Zithromax® is now the most common way to treat the disease.
Oman became the first country to officially eliminate trachoma as a public health problem, as certified by the World Health Organization. Several other countries reached this milestone between 2016 and 2018: Morocco, Mexico, Cambodia, Laos, Ghana, Nepal and Iran. In 2021, The Gambia became the latest country to eliminate the disease.