Carl Koller, MD

  • Presented: 
    2017
  • Recognition: 
    ASCRS Ophthalmology Hall of Fame

(1857-1944)

Dr. Carl Koller was an Austrian ophthalmologist whose name appears in histories of surgery and anesthesiology. His great accomplishment was to bring cocaine and local anesthesia into the collection of resources of the eye surgeon, an innovation that was adopted by all other surgical specialties.

Dr. Koller began his medical career as a surgeon at the Vienna General Hospital and a colleague of Sigmund Freud. He introduced cocaine as a local anesthetic for eye surgery. Prior to this discovery, he had tested solutions such as chloral hydrate and morphine as anesthetics in the eyes of laboratory animals without success. Freud was fully aware of the pain-killing properties of cocaine, but Koller recognized its tissue-numbing capabilities, and in 1884 demonstrated its potential as a local anesthetic to the medical community.

Dr. Koller's findings were a medical breakthrough. Prior to his discovery, performing eye surgery was difficult because the involuntary reflex motions of the eye to respond to the slightest stimuli. Up to that point eye surgery was generally done without any anesthesia because of the danger of general anesthesia and inhalation techniques then available to the open eye. With local anesthesia, ophthalmic surgery blossomed.

Later, cocaine was also used as a local anesthetic in other medical fields such as dentistry. In 1888, Dr. Koller moved to the United States and practiced ophthalmology in New York. He received many distinctions in his career, including being honored by the American Ophthalmological Society as the first recipient of the "Lucien Howe Medal" in 1922. This award is given to physicians in recognition of outstanding achievements in ophthalmology. In 1930, he was also honored by the Medical Association of Vienna.