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Contact lenses

February 27, 2001

A public radio commentary

Dorothy Parker once wrote - in a now famous couplet - "Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses." Some credit her with bringing about contact lenses, but I give the nod to a Czech chemistry professor named Otto Witchterle.

In 1952, while on a train ride to Prague - Witchterle was a citizen of Czechoslovakia - he observed a fellow passenger reading about metal implants for eyeball replacement. He told the traveller "It would be much better to invent some plastic for implants that would be compatible with the surrounding tissue."

Witchterle was a chemist who studied polymers - long flexible pieces of plastic - and he was fascinated with making polymers compatible with the human body. His fellow passenger turned out to be the secretary of a health ministry commission looking into the use of plastics for medicine. The commission ordered Wichterle to make such an implant, but embarrassingly he had to tell them that he had no such material - adding quickly that he was sure he could synthesize some.

He started looking at polymers called hydrophilic, or water-loving - and even before he started, he began filing out patents on potential uses, one of which was for soft contact lenses. At that point his life changed dramatically: The Czech Communists party dismissed him from his job calling him politically unreliable.

Witcherle focused his newly found free time on finding ways to turn his soft, water-loving polymer in a pliable lens. In his kitchen he build a mold the shape of a lens, mounted it on a child's erector set, then used the motor of an old phonograph to spin the mold. Witcherle sprayed polymer on the spinning shape, and created a thin, perfectly formed contact lens.

By early 1962 he and his wife, a doctor, had produced five thousand of them. Wichterle travelled around the world distributing handfuls of the lenses to interested ophthalmologists and optometrists. "The reaction was unanimous," he later said, "They were a joke, an interesting subject, but without any wider application." Nothing much happened until he demonstrated his contact lens for some U.S. Patent lawyers touring Prague. He recalled: "I took a lens out of my eye, threw it on the floor, stepped on it, then washed it with my mouth and put it back in my eye." The lawyers were impressed enough to buy the patent rights.

The Czech government received the lion's share of the money; Witcherle got almost none. He took the loss philosophically, saying later: "I would have had problems with what to do with such an amount of money." Instead he just kept inventing - earning hundreds of patents on biomedical plastics and synthetic fibers. And also Witcherle earned huge academic distinction and international recognition for inventing the contact lens - although he always wore glasses.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises