“Pupula Duplex” is said to be a rare condition in which a person has two irises and two pupils in one eye. But is this condition real or simply a myth?
About “Pupula Duplex”
The phrase “pupula duplex” can be traced back to Ovid, and other ancient writers who referred to it as the “Evil Eye.”
The meaning of “pupula duplex” – from Latin, translated as “double pupil” – was debated in writings around the turn of the 20th century in attempts to determine if this “evil eye” was an actual physical condition, or merely symbolism used by ancient writers. Walton Brooks McDaniel discussed the phrase in great detail in his essay, “The Pupula Duplex and Other Tokens of an “Evil Eye” in the Light of Ophthalmology.” McDaniel’s 1918 essay expands upon, and often refutes, an earlier essay by Kirby Flower Smith’s entitled “Pupula Duplex” from 1902.
Smith concluded that “pupula duplex” could have meant double pupil but it could also have been interpreted to mean heterochromia, a rare condition in which a person has eyes of multiple colors. He also postulated that pupula duplex may have merely been symbolic, or that it could have been translated by authors “without knowing what the word really meant.”
McDaniel took some of Smith’s assertions to task, and presented additional explanations for the “pupula duplex” references:
“In passing to the phenomenon of the pupula duplex, we may define the physical basis for the superstition much more narrowly and I hope quite convincingly. While it is probably a fact that there is no such thing among human beings as a double pupil, that is to say, as two real pupils, in one eye, each opening possessing a sphincter muscle enabling it to contract and dilate, there are appearances of the eye which would lead an ancient to discern two pupils where there existed only one real one, or to regard a twofold (duplex) enlargement of the normal opening as practically the equivalent of two.”
McDaniel suggested that other eye conditions may have been translated from 12th century Greek scholar Eustathius to read “double pupil” but that the writer more likely meant “unlike pupils.” He asserted that cases of heterochromia of the irises or coloboma of the iris were what some ancient writers meant when describing “double pupils.”
Although the term “pupula duplex” is practically non-existent in modern medical literature, a condition known as polycoria could roughly resemble two irises in certain cases. According to the Handbook of Pediatric Neuro-Ophthalmology (2006), polycoria is described as “a condition in which there are many openings in the iris that result from local hypoplasia of the iris stroma and pigment epithelium. True polycoria actually is a condition in which there is more than one pupil and the multiple pupils all have a sphincter and the ability to contract.”
It has been pointed out that “most cases of polycoria, however, are actually pseudopolycoria as only one of the pupils is the true pupil with an iris sphincter muscle. Therefore, in almost all clinical situations, the correct term is pseudopolycoria.”
There are also other eye disorders or eye injuries which can give the illusion of multiple pupils.
Coloboma of the Iris
McDaniel suggested that a condition known as coloboma of the iris could also give the illusion of two irises. He noted that “Pupula Duplex” and coloboma of the iris were both said to be hereditary, further bolstering this assertion.
Whole families possessed a pupula duplex, says our ancient authority, and that is just what modern opthalmological experience would lead us to expect, since coloboma of the iris is persistently hereditary, like a great many other eye troubles.
Liu Ch’ung is a man often cited as an example of a person with pupula duplex. A wax statue of Liu Ch’ung still exists in Ripley’s museums, such as the location in London. The statue contains the following caption:
The Double-Eyed Man
Believe it or not! Liu Ch’ung was born with double pupils in each eye. Despite his abnormality, he became Governor of Shansi, China, and Minster of State in 995 A.D. Later, through an affair with the Dowager Empress, he had his son proclaimed heir apparent of all China! Although Liu Ch’ung’s condition is extremely rare, other 4-eyed men have been recorded by medical science. In 1931, Robert Ripley personally met a double-eyed man named Henry Hawn living in Mills Kentucky!
Although wax statues such as the one at Ripley’s depict a man with double eyes – four irises and four pupils – this could merely be an artist’s concept, and possibly inaccurate. Could this be an erroneous depiction of polycoria? Further, no known photos of Henry Hawn are known to exist.
In addition to a lack of medical evidence supporting pupula duplex, there is also a lack of photo evidence of the alleged condition. While photo evidence of polycoria is readily available, no photos resembling the condition shown in the wax figure of Liu Ch’ung have surfaced to prove this condition is real, nor do examples exist in current medical literature.
In 2013 a Wikipedia page was briefly maintained which presented Pupula Duplex as a real condition. You can still see the remnants of that page in which the author admitted, “Looks like hoax. I was hoodwinked.” The original can still be found on the Internet Archive. The short entry read:
Pupula duplex — commonly called double pupil — is a medical condition, in which one’s eye or eyes has two pupils. In popular culture, it is thought to be a sign of the evil eye, and also to give one better eyesight. Ancient Chinese warlord Xiang Yu suffered from pupula duplex. Robert Ripley reportedly met an American man suffering from double pupil himself in 1931. A wax display at the Saint Augustine-based Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum depicts Liu Chung, also known as Liu Min, a notable sufferer of the condition. Liu was in 995 CE China’s Minister of State and the Governor of Shanxi Province.
The Google Trends chart below shows interest in the phrase “pupula duplex.” Its first surge began in late 2011 and had its highest peak in September 2013, with another recent surge in April 2015.
We have prepared a short video below which summarizes the information in this article.
“Pupula Duplex” is not a term used in modern ophthalmology. Its original ancient meaning is debated, and could have possibly included a number of explanations, including the modern definition of polycoria or any number of other eye conditions. There is little evidence that a condition exists in which multiple irises and pupils are found in the same eye. We reached out to an ophthalmologist to get his opinion on “pupula duplex” and he responded with a single word: “Hoax!”
- Kirby Flower Smith. “Pupula Duplex.” Studies in the Honor of Basil L. Gildersleeve (1902) 287-300.
- Walton Brooks McDaniel, “The Pupula Duplex and Other Tokens of an “Evil Eye” in the Light of Ophthalmology.” Classical Philology (1918), 335-346
- Kenneth Weston Wright, Peter H. Spiegel, Lisa S. Thompson. Handbook of Pediatric Neuro-Ophthamology (2006), 49-50.
- Niaz Islam,
Jodbhir S. Mehta,
Gordon T. Plant.
“True polycoria or pseudopolycoria?” Acta Ophthalmologica Scandinavica (2007), 805-806.
Updated January 3, 2016
Originally published June 2013