We performed the first population-based clinical and molecular genetic study of Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) in a population of 2,173,800 individuals in the North East of England. We identified 16 genealogically unrelated families who harbor one of the three primary mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations that cause LHON. Two of these families were found to be linked genetically to a common maternal founder. A de novo mtDNA mutation (G3460A) was identified in one family. The minimum point prevalence of visual failure due to LHON within this population was 3.22 per 100,000 (95% CI 2.47-3.97 per 100,000), and the minimum point prevalence for mtDNA LHON mutations was 11.82 per 100,000 (95% CI 10.38-13.27 per 100,000). These results indicate that LHON is not rare but has a population prevalence similar to autosomally inherited neurological disorders. The majority of individuals harbored only mutant mtDNA (homoplasmy), but heteroplasmy was detected in approximately 12% of individuals. Overall, however, approximately 33% of families with LHON had at least one heteroplasmic individual. The high incidence of heteroplasmy in pedigrees with LHON raises the possibility that a closely related maternal relative of an index case may not harbor the mtDNA mutation, highlighting the importance of molecular genetic testing for each maternal family member seeking advice about their risks of visual failure.