Contact Lens Birthday - Otto Wichterle
October 27th – On this date New York opened the first subway, Prince Svatopluk had to kill Vršovice and more than 30 world-famous personalities were born…
but, most importantly of all, Otto Wichterle was born!
What comes to mind when you hear his name? If you paid attention in school, or you're a conscientious contact lens wearer, you would know that Otto Wichterle is the inventor of soft contact lenses. And although his name may not seem typically Czech, he was in fact a native of Bohemia. So we have to be proud – after all, thanks to him we do not have to wear spectacles!
Otto was born in Prostějově, into a relatively wealthy family. His life (and also the fate of the contact lens) was endangered when he was just six-years-old. At the time, he nearly drowned in a manure pit and spent that entire summer in bed with a high fever. His doctor predicted that Otto had no more than a year to live. Fortunately, this prognosis was wrong and Otto‘s next development was incredibly promising. Thanks to his intelligence, at just nine-years-old, he tested the director of his boarding school and eventually graduated with honours. He did not begin studying machine mechanics (as he had wished) but his friend Souček persuaded him to study at the Faculty of Chemistry instead. Later, he worked as a lecturer and researcher at that faculty. Due to relentless insistence and also owing to the political situation, Otto joined the Bata laboratory in Zlin where, thanks to its chemical expertise, they were able to improve the quality of nylon for example, or was inventing entirely new materials.
And how did the lenses come about?
On one (seemingly) ordinary day in 1952, Otto travelled by train from Olomouc to Prague. His companion, Dr. Pur, read a newspaper article about the surgical replacement of the eye. At first glance it might have seemed rude to him that Otto was looking over his shoulder. But as a result, Otto‘s mind began to form a truly brilliant idea – better than a metal mesh implant would be an implant made of plastic! There and then he began his painstaking research. Initially, HemaGel contained the desired properties – however, it is easily tore during the manufacture of lenses. As always, nothing is easy! Otto and his collaborators were forced to complete their research elsewhere, this time not in Bata labs but under the auspices of the IMC. There they began pouring the mass into glass moulds. Initial tests showed that the manufactured lenses could provide perfect vision correction in patients and were well tolerated. It really was the breakthrough discovery!
With Edison, nobody believed that the light bulb could be a profitable invention. Similarly, Otto was in trouble – the Health Ministry stopped his research because they simply could not believe in such a project. Finally, Otto continued his researched at home under very modest conditions. Officially, the first manufacturing device used in the production of lenses was made from Merkur, a children’s metal building set (the same as Mecanno) and included the dynamo from a bicycle and a motor from a record-player‘s turntable! Don‘t forget to celebrate this genius’s birthday, perhaps by buying some lenses or a ‘better quality’ solution :)