The only part of my father that wasn't cremated was his glass eye. In protest of letting him go completely, I went to a Greenwich Village jeweler and had his prosthetic eye set into a silver skull ring that I wore on my index finger. Ever since we lost my mother in 1993, I clung to Dad. We were a society of two, always trading inside jokes. When he died in 2007, his eye became my amulet, my travel companion and friend. In some ways, it replaced him. Until last month when the ring slipped off my finger and fell down a sink drain.
My memory flashed to 1995 when we went to a prosthetic eye specialist after Dad lost his eye to a rare melanoma. Dad took off his black pirate-like patch for the first time since the surgery. He looked vulnerable, his pink socket empty and sad. The Ocularist carried two trays of hand-painted eyeballs. The eyes clinked as they slid down their individual compartments. 24 blue, green, brown, violet, grey eyeballs—all half-orbs—stared at mine. They appeared so lifelike: veins threaded in fine red silk, intricate irises painted with meticulous detail.
"Or something more fun," the Ocularist said as he brought a second tray with customized designs: an American flag, evil eye, $20 bill, an 8-ball, skull and bones, pet portraits, Rangers, Sea Hawks, Nike swoosh, tiger eyes and the blue-grey iris with a one-carat cubic zirconia in place of a pupil.
This snagged my attention: "SPACE FOR RENT." A patient was determined to rake in some profit by allowing companies to lease his eyeball. "Daddy, you should get this one," I said in earnest. Money was tight and this seemed like the perfect solution. "If you ask Mattel maybe they'd send us Barbies." My 9-year-old imagination went wild. Increased allowance. Free Barbies for life.
I was crushed when Dad opted for a replica of his real eye. The final prosthetic looked so lifelike; it even moved when dad rolled his eyes. For the rest of my father's life I could never tell which eye was fake, except when he'd play tricks like pop his eyeball into the salad and say, "Is this Thousand Eye-land dressing?" Or sometimes we'd be at a restaurant; he'd set the prosthetic on the table and en route to the bathroom, whisper, "I've got my eye on you."
One day we walked past a sign that read, "$100 Eye Exam." My father asked for a 50 percent discount, since they only had to do half the work. "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," he'd say. As Dad adjusted to a single-eyed, single-dad life, the eye provided much-needed comic relief. After he died, it became my solace. And now it was gone. Down the drain, deep in Manhattan sewage.
In a panic to replace his prosthetic eye, I googled "Prosthetic eyes NYC" and found Mager & Gougelman, Inc., which turns out to be the same fourth-generation Ocularists my father and I had visited 20 years ago. The practice, established in 1851, is one of the oldest family-run businesses in New York City. I made a visit.
At first glance, the space seems like a typical doctor's office with magazines and diplomas and diagrams, but behind the scenes is a half-science lab, half-artist studio where specialists in white lab coats paint irises to microscopic precision, create moldings of eyes and sockets, and boil acrylic eyeballs in steaming white pots. Ocularist Andrew Gougelmann opens a hunter green vintage medicine cabinet with thousands of dusty eyeballs in velvet compartments. I keep thinking I spot Dad's eye but it's nowhere in sight.
"We have over 100,000 eyes in our collection," Gougelmann says, "I like to have fun with them. I've made a gearshift for a car. Guitar picks. Sometimes sell defective ones to jewelers. If I had an artificial eye, I'd definitely choose something cool." Standard prosthetics run $3,000-$5,000, whereas a novelty eye costs approximately $500.
The anatomy of irises and sockets, like fingerprints, varies from person to person. The Ocularist's goal is to recapture the personality, sparkle, and emotion expressed in a person's eye, so every eye is made by hand in a process that spans three to four appointments. First, Gougelmann takes an impression of the patient's orbit, the cavity in the skull where the eye sits. A plastic reproduction of the impression is then fitted and sculpted until it rests comfortably in the patient's socket, and a mold of the final shape is used to make the prosthesis.
Gougelmann paints the iris's background color on a black disc, waits for it to dry, and then processes a clear plastic cornea over the disc. With the patient present, he hand-paints the iris with oils until it matches the real eye. The iris is then put back into the mold and capped with clear plastic resin. The whites of the eye are stained and veined with delicate red silk to give dimension. Finally, the eye is boiled, polished and good to go.
Ocular muscles attach to the prosthetic so that the artificial eye moves in unison with the real one, but getting used to monocular vision is no cakewalk. I remember Dad tripping constantly. Dinner remnants cemented onto his reading glasses, because his depth perception was off so he'd often miscalculate the path from dish to mouth. His peripheral vision was limited so that sometimes he'd yell my name because he couldn't see me standing right next to him and he'd say, "How many times do I have to tell you? You're on the wrong side. I can't see you." Still, I never stopped mixing them up because the prosthetic looked so damn real.
They're about to get really real. "I'm looking forward to the day people will be able to see from an artificial eye," Gougelmann says, "With over one-million optic nerve endings, a seeing bionic eye will be invented before an implant." What if bionic eyes become so advanced that they doubled as mini emotionally intelligent computers, and people began opting for voluntary prosthetics? Then, in the land of the sighted, the one-eyed man will still be king—and a sixth-generation Mager & Gougelman Inc. Oculist will likely be fitting and painting these bionic kings.
"Unfortunately," Gougelmann says, holding my father's file, "Eye sockets change shape and need to be refitted every few years. He hadn't come since 2005 and we've discarded the mold." After a fleeting moment of disappointment, the news isn't as hard-hitting as I'd anticipated. I almost feel relieved. Had it really been eight years since Dad's death? Surrounded by thousands of eyeballs, I think, perhaps this is Dad's way of telling me it's time to live through my own eyes.
Modern Medicine is a series on Motherboard about how health care and medical technology can move forward so rapidly while still being stuck in the past. Follow along here.