Or: That Remains to Be Seen
Many of us have this man to thank for liberating us from thick glasses, being called four eyes, and having permanent indentations around the bridge of the nose.
He invented the soft contact lens, and I for one will be forever grateful.
Born in 1913 in the town of Prostejov, in Northern Moravia, Wichterle survived two World Wars, Nazi occupation, and the onset of Communism, becoming a leader among leaders in polymer science by the age of forty.
First Things First
Wichterle didn't get into opthamology until later in his career. He started as a very well-educated chemical engineer.
I've Got One Word. Plastics.
The post-war economy was not quite ready to support the release of spinnable Nylon 6, so Wichterle did what many others do in a poor economy, even today. He went back to school.
- 1945: Wichterle reenters the Institute at Prague, and completes a second doctorate in organic chemistry.
- 1949: His studies are expanded to incorporate the technology of plastics, for which he creates and heads a new department.
Strangers on a Train
It was not until 1952 that Wichterle's interest in plastics crossed over into the world of opthamology.
While travelling by rail from Oloumoc to Prague he spotted a man reading a magazine on the subject, and, as he writes in his autobiography:
'...came up with the suggestion of using slightly cross-linked hydrophilic three-dimensional polymers for better compatibility over metal prosthesis used as a substitution for enucleated bulbs.'
Well, obviously. The man was clearly a master of light conversation. But what he came upon in that moment was the idea of water-swellable gels, for use mainly in medicine, with the additional potential of application to eye-care.
He filed a patent on such gels within a year.
Prize on the Eyes
Wichterle went to work immediately, and in not too much time developed a polyhydroxyethylmethacrylate gel--natch--that was 40% water and totally transparent.
But getting the goo was the easy part. The trouble was how to shape it for wearing on the eyes.
He started with polystyrene molds and made some headway, but the lenses would always have irregular (read painful) edges and would often tear with the opening of the mold. It wasn't until 1957 that he made one he deemed worthy of making himself a guinea pig over.
In the several seconds of excruciating pain he was able to endure, he found a focal distance, and called the project a success.
The newly named University of Chemical Technology came quite undesirably to the attention of the Communist Regime in the 1950s, and Wichterle once more wound up on the wrong side of the reigning authorities. In 1958, during the latest political purge, he was forced to leave the school, and research was temporarily halted.
Work At Home and Make Millions!
Something here about necessity being the mother of invention.
Visions of Greatness
It took a couple of Americans to get Wichterle out of the garage and into the world of big business.
Over the next few years, the company continued to refine the process with the professor's help, and set up manufacturing of their own. They started selling lenses in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, China, Great Britain, Spain, Italy and Holland.
The Eyes Have It
Wichterle made a mint with his invention, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, he finally managed to step forward without fear of being disappeared.
He was elected chairman of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, but only held the post for three years--until the the country split up.
Wichterle died five years later, in 1998.