Pupula Duplex: Real or Myth?

"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?

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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.

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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 takes some of Smith’s assertions to task, and presents 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.”

A rare image of true polycoria.

Polycoria can vary greatly in appearance.

Polycoria

Although the term “pupula duplex” is practically non-existent in modern medical literature, a condition known as polycoria could roughly resemble two irises in some 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 is 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.

This is a wax statue in the Ripley's museum.

This is a wax statue of Liu Ch’ung in the Ripley’s museum.

Ripley’s

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.

Photo Evidence

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.

Bottom Line

“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!”

Sources

  • 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,

    and

    Gordon T. Plant.

    “True polycoria or pseudopolycoria?” Acta Ophthalmologica Scandinavica (2007), 805-806.

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  • Anonymous

    If pupula Duplex is two pupils in one eye, and if it’s not real, then what do you call it? My friend has one main pupil in the normal spot, but a very small one under it. Would that be considered Pupula Duplex?

    • waffles

      Does it look like the example of Polycoria above?

    • twt responder

      Obviously you didn’t read the article! Smh…