Optography: The Last Thing You See

Optography. The concept that eyes capture an image, or an ‘optogram’, of the last thing someone sees before they die. The final moments of a persons life, recorded on the retina of the eye. See the killer, see the weapon, see the room. A really quick end to a game of Cluedo.

‘Why haven’t I heard of this?’, you might be asking. Probably because it’s been scientifically debunked over and over again.

The idea originated in 19th Century fiction, and was an incredible concept – the police actually began taking photos of eyeballs at crime scenes of murders as a precaution. Wilhelm Kühne, a German physiologist, began experimenting with optography in animals, based on the discovery of rhodopsin, a photosensitive pigment that is found in the retina. Kühne found that if the circumstances allowed, rhodopsin could become fixed in the same way that the negative of a photograph is fixed.

Optogram of an Albino Rabbit.

Kühne was able to produce some optograms from the eyes of rabbits, and the image above is the most iconic optogram in the world. Although this could work, in theory, with ideal circumstances, it was never good enough to use as a forensic tool.

In 1975, the idea and study of optography resurfaced, with Evangelos Alexandridis looking into Kühne’s work. He successfully produced some optograms, but ultimately found optography not to be useful as a forensic tool.

I find optography so interesting. The idea that it came from fiction, and police thought, ‘alright let’s give this a go then’. It was even attempted on two Jack the Ripper victims – Mary Kelly and Annie Chapman, because let’s be real, anything to help them find JTR was worth trying. Police were so ill equipped to find a killer in 1888.

I do wonder though, with all the advancements we have made in technology and forensics in the last 30 years, is optography something worth revisiting? Or is it destined to stay a part of fiction?

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