Abstract One hundred years ago, on 7 December 1905, Dr Eduard Zirm performed the world's first successful human corneal transplant. This significant milestone was achieved only after many decades of unsuccessful trial and error; however, it did not lead to relatively 'routine' keratoplasty success for several more decades. The idea of replacing an opaque cornea had been suggested for centuries, and had stimulated theoretical approaches to the problem by many esteemed physicians throughout history. However, little practical progress was made in the ultimate realization of the dream until the 19th century when pioneering surgeons pursued extensive studies in relation to both animal and human 'keratoplasty'. Clinical progress and scientific insight developed slowly, and it was ultimately due to parallel advances in medicine such as anaesthesia and antisepsis that Zirm's success was finally achieved. Key concepts were enshrined such as the use of fresh tissue from the same species, careful placement and handling of tissue, and the development of specialized instrumentation such as the circular trephine. In the latter half of the 20th century, many 'masters' of corneal surgery evolved significant refinements in technique and instrumentation with the development of corticosteroids, antibiotics, surgical microscopes, improved trephines, viscoelastics and suture materials, that enable this delicate procedure to be routinely performed with the prospect of success. There are still limitations to corneal transplantation, and corneal allograft rejection still poses the greatest challenge to the modern corneal surgeon. In the foreseeable future it may be in the laboratory, rather than the theatre, that further milestones will be achieved. This review aims to highlight the significant milestones in the rich history of corneal transplantation, and to pay tribute to the many inspired and dedicated individuals involved in the development of keratoplasty to a point where the procedure is now a standard tool in the repertoire of ophthalmic surgery and more than a million people have enjoyed restoration of useful sight.