Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Optography: Recorded on the retina

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Kühne’s optogram from the retina of a rabbit, 1878. Via Wikimedia. 

“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004), French photographer

The discovery in 1876 that certain cells in the retina change color on exposure to light intensified the comparison of the human eye to a camera. The retina was no longer thought of as merely a membrane, but rather a screen, or even something like a glass photographic plate (or later, like photographic film). Was it possible, then, that the last object an animal saw before death produced an image that remained on the retina? This idea of imprinting on the retina became known as optography.

Dr. Wilhelm Kühne (1837–1900), a physiologist in Heidelberg and a serious and accomplished scientist, conducted an experiment. A restrained rabbit could only see a barred window for the minutes before its decapitation. The posterior half of the animal’s eyes were placed in a solution of aluminum salts, which “fixed” the image on the light-exposed retina. Kühne saw an image of the window on the retina. Two years later, in 1880, he had the opportunity to use this technique on the eyes of a convicted and executed murderer. The images from this “human optogram” lacked sufficient definition to be considered useful. A possible explanation lies in the fact that in humans, the focal point of the retina, the fovea centralis, is only 1.5 mm in diameter and too small for observing an optogram. (It is larger in frogs and rabbits.) One year later, in 1881, a physician and former colleague of Kühne reported that his own experiments produced images too indistinct to be useful.

Optography was tried on one of the victims of London serial murderer “Jack the Ripper” in 1888 without a useful result. In Germany, a suspected mass-murderer confessed when confronted by “optographic evidence” in 1924. Some murderers, fearing an inculpatory optogram from a victim, have destroyed a victim’s eyes to prevent such evidence from being found.

Although the usefulness of the optogram as a legal tool was never truly accepted, the idea remained in the public mind. A 1902 Jules Verne novel, Les frères Kip (The Kip Brothers), has an optogram identifying the killers, thus exonerating two innocent men.

In 1975, state-of-the-art research techniques were used to produce “distinct high-contrast images from the eyes of rabbits,” but the report concluded that optography was not a forensic tool. The German Legal Tribune Online called optography “absurde Kriminalistik” (“absurd forensics”). However, optography still lives today in novels, movies, and television series.


  • “Optography.” Wikipedia.
  • George Wald. “Eye and camera.” Scientific American, 18(2), 1950.
  • Arthur Evans. “Optograms and fiction: Photo in a dead man’s eye.” Science-Fiction Studies, 20, 1993.
  • Allison Meier. “Finding a murderer in a victim’s eyes.” JSTOR Daily, October 31, 2018.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Spring 2024



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