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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
Oman became the first country to 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), with The Gambia following in 2021, Malawi in 2022, and Benin and Mali in 2023.