The Expert: What I Know About … Making Artificial Eyes

Forget what you’ve heard – ocularistry has nothing to do with glass eyes.

Who: Ian McRobbie

Age: 54

Job: Ocularist

Experience: Ian McRobbie has sculpted, painted and created 4,000 artificial eyes over the last 26 years. McRobbie is the man to see when a patient – who could be from anywhere across northern Alberta to the majority of the western Arctic – loses an eye to events such as trauma, birth defect or disease.

The NAIT biological sciences graduate began his career after an eight-year stint in a Multiple Sclerosis research lab at the University of Alberta. He was inspired after his brother-in-law, Jim Willis, took McRobbie on a tour of his office.

“It turns out the answer was staring me in the face all along,” says McRobbie, “I thought, ‘oh man, this is what I need to do. It’s everything I want in a career.’ I deal with people, there’s an artistic element and I can work with my hands.”

McRobbie apprenticed under Willis for five years, and received his certification from the American Society of Ocularists in 1993. He owns and operates Willis’s former office, LeGrand Northwest Ocularist (2013) Inc., in Edmonton. He’s served as an associate editor and a member of the editorial board for The Journal of Ophthalmic Prosthetics, contributed articles to The Journal of the American Society of Ocularists, and co-authored a chapter of the book, Advances in Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

– “The entire field of custom ocularistry is probably only 65 years old. So here [in the prairies], there was no one making custom eyes for anybody until around 1974. Before that, you would get a tray of glass eyes and keep trying them on until you had the closest approximation in colour and fit.

– “The first plastic eyes were made toward the end of World War II, when the U.S. military put dental technicians to the task of creating artificial eyes to replace the glass ones that relied on glass supplied from Germany. They adapted their technology to make eyes out of the plastic and acrylic already in place for dentures.

– “Ocularists are somewhat rare. There are only 30 ocularists in Canada, which is less than the approximately 250 in the U.S. I’m the only one in Edmonton and there are only two in Alberta.

– “Because the quality of the outcome for the artificial eye is restricted by the quality of the surgery when the eye is removed, the techniques have advanced over time. A surgeon places an implant in the person’s socket, attaches it to existing muscles and closes the tissue over it. The implant is actually a processed and harvested sea coral. It’s an ideal matrix-like structure, as it resembles bone on a microscopic level. Because it is a porous matrix, the blood vessels and muscle tissue will grow through the coral ball until it is completely incorporated into the body.

– “A patient will be in and out of our office three times in one day, but by the end of that day they will have their new eye. We get the right shape and the initial colour. We create a plaster cast out of the wax shape. When that plaster is set, the wax is removed and acrylic dough is mixed and placed in the cast. Then, the acrylic goes from being soft and doughy to being very hard. You end up with a shape with the iris piece trapped inside. Then I take the rough, nasty eyeball and polish it up to being super glossy and put it in a socket.

– “We fit the artificial eye by an impression technique. The back of our prosthesis cups right on the face of that implant, then all the movement from that implant is passed to the prosthesis. The eye is connected; when your seeing eye is moving, your prosthetic is also moving to some degree.

– “Sitting here with the patient, I actually will hand-paint their iris colour on to the back of the clear piece [which will fit into the eye]. I don’t personally trust the photographic image. I trust what I can see with my own eyes. I have sat here and taken enough photographic images and taken a picture for my records, and found that the image and the eye do not look the same.

– “That’s another question we get: Is it waterproof paint? Is there a reason it doesn’t wash away in my eye socket? But the paint is trapped between white plastic and the clear plastic – it’s not exposed at all. The paints we use are actually old automotive lacquers. Like with any paint, you can get as much precision as you need with the right brushes and colours. There are people that are using other materials such as oils or acrylics, so it’s not like you can’t use them.”

– “Since there are no colleges or schools that teach this field, we work under an apprentice-and-mentorship scenario. That’s why the profession is kind of a generational thing. You see a lot of husbands and wives and fathers, sons and daughters. Apprentices shadow for as much as one year before doing fittings, log 10,000 hours with the American Society of Ocularists as an apprentice and pass exams through National Examining Board of Ocularists.”

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