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Iridology

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Iridology (sometimes referred to as iris diagnosis) is based on the bizarre belief that each area of the body is represented by a corresponding area in the iris of the eye (the colored area around the pupil. According to this viewpoint, a person's state of health and disease can be diagnosed from the color, texture, and location of various pigment flecks in the eye. Iridology practitioners claim to diagnose "imbalances" that can be treated with vitamins, minerals, herbs, and similar products. Some also claim that the eye markings can reveal a complete history of past illnesses as well as previous treatment. One textbook, for example, states that a white triangle in the appropriate area indicates appendicitis, but a black speck indicates that the appendix had been removed by surgery. Iridology charts -- dozens of which exist -- vary somewhat in the location and interpretation of their iris signs. Sclerology is similar to iridology but interprets the shape and condition of blood vessels on the white portion (sclera) of the eyeball.

This iridology chart of the left eye was developed by a prominent naturopath more than 70 years ago. It relates various spots on the eye to about fifty parts of the body. The innermost white ciricle, for example, is said to reflect the health of the stomach. The topmost quadrant is said to represent the brain (cerebrum and cerebellum) and other parts of the head.

Proponents of iridology attribute its development to Ignatz von Peczely, a Hungarian physician who, during his childhood, had accidentally broken the leg of an owl and noticed a black stripe in the lower part of the owl's eye. Nonadherents suggest that von Peczely may have developed his theory to pass time while he was imprisoned after the 1848 Hungarian revolution. After his release from prison he allegedly saved the life of his mother with homeopathic remedies, recalled the incident of the owl's eye, and began studying the eyes of his patients.

Bernard Jensen, D.C., the leading American iridologist, states that "Nature has provided us with a miniature television screen showing the most remote portions of the body by way of nerve reflex responses." He also claims that iridology analyses are more reliable and "offer much more information about the state of the body than do the examinations of Western medicine." However, in 1979 he and two other proponents failed a scientific test in which they examined photographs of the eyes of 143 persons in an attempt to determine which ones had kidney impairments. (Forty-eight had been diagnosed with a standard kidney function test, and the rest had normal function.) The three iridologists showed no statistically significant ability to detect which patients had kidney disease and which did not. One iridologist, for example, decided that 88% of the normal patients had kidney disease, while another judged that 74% of patients sick enough to need artificial kidney treatment were normal [1] Click here to see an example of Jensen's iridology chart.

In 1980, an experienced Australian iridologist underwent two tests. In the first, he examined photographs of 15 patients who had been medically evaluated and had a total of 33 health problems. The iridologist did not correctly diagnose any of these problems. In three cases he named a part of the body that had had trouble (for example, he said "lesion in throat area" for a patient whose tonsils had been removed during childhood), but he completely missed the other 30 problem areas and made 60 incorrect diagnoses. In the second trial, four people had their eyes photographed when they were in good health and rephotographed when they reported being ill. The iridologist made a large number of (incorrect) diagnoses from the initial photographs and was unable to accurately identify any organ that underwent a change when the health problem arose. He was also asked to compare iris photographs of another healthy individual taken only two minutes apart. He made five incorrect diagnoses for the first of these and four different incorrect ones for the second [2].

More recently, five leading Dutch iridologists failed a similar test in which they were shown stereo color slides of the right iris of 78 people, half of whom had gallbladder disease. None of the five could distinguish between the patients with gallbladder disease and the people who were healthy. Nor did they agree with each other about which was which [3]. These negative results, of course, are not surprising, because there is no known mechanism by which body organs can be represented or transmit their health status to specific locations in the iris.

Some multilevel distributors are using iridology as a basis recommending dietary supplements and/or herbs. Anyone who does this and is not a licensed health professional would be guilty of practicing medicine without a license, which is a violation of state law. If you encounter anyone practicing iridology, please report this to your state attorney general.

Disillusionment

Herbalist Michael Tierra has described how became disillusioned with iridology. After making various observations, he stopped using it but still hoped that it would turn out to have some value. Then, however:

A younger colleague fully equipped with the most up-to-date specialized iridology equipment introduced himself and stated that he wanted to give iridology readings at my clinic and at the same time moniter the course of my patients over a period of six months.

Given the fact that for most of us as well my patients six months is quite a long period, there was ample opportunity for many of these to go through a variety of health-related changes. Some people became well and got sick again with either the same or perhaps a different set of symptoms, others suffered injuries or operations. They all had their irises repeatedly photographed and studed by my colleague and myself. Where was Peczely's owl or the markings he claimed to observe in patients of the 19th century Hungarian hospital ward? Were were the fine white healing lines that were supposed to knit together the small dark lacunae corresponding to the healing of operations and injuries of different parts of the body?

Our conclusion after six months: my colleague, trying to hold on to the fast disappearing shread of belief in the validity of iridology sheepishly and somewhat guiltily sold his camera to another wouldbe iridology enthusiast. I buried my official iridology magnifying head band in a box in a dark, hopefully soon forgotten area of my office closet, where I must confess it still remains after over 15 years, unopened.

Since that time and only last year I spoke with another herbalist, colleague, Debra Nuzzi who worked as the editor of many of Dr. Bernard Jensen's books. . . . In assembling the various photographs for his book, she told me how she confronted Dr. Jensen with the fact that in the many photographs she was editing to include in the book there were never any fine white lines filling in dark areas that would exemplify healing and recovery. It seemed that, like my colleague with the camera and myself, attempts to discover positive signs of healing solely from iridology was for Dr. Jensen more of a longed-for hope than a reality [4].

Another former iridologist, Joshua David Mather Sr., has written a detailed account of the origin and termination of his beliefs. He began studying iridology at age nine when his father became a practitioner. He abandoned it at age 25 after examining polaroid films of many patients and finding out that although their symptoms often improved, their eye markings never changed [5].

References

  1. Simon A and others. An evaluation of iridology. JAMA 242:1385­1387, 1979.
  2. Cockburn DM. A study of the validity of iris diagnosis. Australian Journal of Optometry. 64:154-157, 1981.
  3. Knipschild P. Looking for gall bladder disease in the patient's iris. British Medical Journal 297:1578­1581, 1988.
  4. Tierra M. A comparative evaluation of diagnostic systems used in herbal medicine, downloaded Dec 23, 1998.
  5. Mather JD. Confessions of a former iridologist. Accesed May 31, 2000.

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This article was revised on May 31, 2000..