They came from mostly simple walks of life: a construction worker from Taiwan, a taxi driver from
San Francisco, a medical student from Japan, a farmer from Indonesia. All walked in from a world of
darkness and left in the fullness of light-blind or partially blind patients who received the gift of sight
through cornea transplants from eyes donated by Sri Lankans.
Some of the donors were famous-one a former primer minister, another a former governor-general.
But mostly they came from backgrounds as humble as the recipients-monks, nuns, farmers, construction
workers. They were simply among more than 17 000 Sri Lankans from all walks of life and of varying
ages who had given their eyes so that others, literally, could see through them.
The Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society, through the country's international eye hank, has been making
gifts of eyes to the world's blind for more than three decades. It is, in fact, the first eye bank in the world.
The story very much revolves around Dr Hudson Silva, the bank's founder. With single-minded devotion,
this serene, soft-spoken man of vision has served the cause of the blind for 25 years. For 21 of those years
he has been aided by his wife, Irangani.
Operating from a room in his small flat in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, Silva increased his "export"
of eyes from a mere six in 1964 to more than 2000 in 1985. In addition, he has performed hundreds of
corneal transplants locally. There has been a steadily increasing flow of gift-eyes from the island-
republic's 16 million people. In fact, more than half a million Sri Lankans have now pledged their eyes on
their death for distribution at home or abroad.
Silva was in the operating room of the Colombo General Hospital where two patients were being
prepared simultaneously for surgery when the idea of an eye-donation programme occurred to him. One
patient had cancer behind the eye, requiring its removal. The other, blinded by a diseased cornea, was
waiting to receive the still-healthy cornea from the cancer patient. If, thought Silva, enough people
volunteered to donate their eyes when they died, the needs of the corneally blind in Sri Lanka could be
adequately met. Even at that time about 20 deaths occurred every day in Colombo because of eye
The year was 1958 but within a month more than 500 people had responded to Silva's call, among
them his own mother and the governor-general. Two years later his mother died and he himself removed
her eyes to give sight to a village farmer. The story touched the nation. A week later, 18000 eyes had
been donated to the Ceylon Eye Donation Society, which Silva had founded on his graduation. Silva
predicted that "one day Ceylon will have a rich harvest of eyes to donate to anyone in Ceylon or abroad." His
colleagues were sceptical . At a time when internal and international telecommunications were at a
comparatively primitive state, particularly in Sri Lanka, the possibility of sending 'live' corneas to distant
places seemed remote. But Silva had total faith in his vision.
He began writing letters to hospitals in the major capitals of the world. He told them that he could
supply eyes for corneal grafting, on request. In 1964, Silva sent six eyes by plane to Singapore in an
ice-filled thermos flask. His project was off the ground. The following year, the Ceylon International Eye
Bank was officially opened by the Prime Minister.