Canned By Communists, Clarity At Christmas – Otto Wichterle And The Invention Of Soft Contact Lenses

I have abysmal eyesight. I’ve worn glasses since the age of five, and my last real memory of not wearing them involved running face first into a barrier outside McDonalds in Telford. Remarkably, I got straight up and continued on my quest to Chicken Nugget wonderland, but my eyesight paid the price. Having poor eyesight is no longer the major obstacle it once was though, and advances in laser eye surgery mean glasses can be avoided all together. If a laser in to the eyes doesn’t grab you, you can always try the contact lenses route, although I still say that poking yourself in the eye is unnatural.

You have to delve way back into the sands of time to find the first description of what would become the contact lens, way back to the good old days of the early 16th century. Leonardo da Vinci was the chap, the first man to describe and sketch the thing. He had no interest in vision correction though, instead sketching things because he was da Vinci and what of it? One hundred years later that pesky scamp René Descartes brought up the idea of a lens laid directly upon the surface of the eye to correct vision, but it would be over 250 years until the first glass contact lens was produced.

Another 49 would pass before plastic was introduced, and 12 more before the first 100% plastic lens was made. Still, they were ungainly and cumbersome, not exactly thriving on the comfort scale and aesthetically ridiculous. Technologies were advancing at an alarming rate, but contact lenses still remained a fairly niche market. As of 1940 only 8,000 people in the United States used them, and they were damn expensive.  Soft contact lenses were mere fantasy. Enter Otto Wichterle.

Who? Well, Otto Wichterle was a Czech chemist born in Prostějov, a town near Olomouc in Moravia. His father was the co-owner of a farm-machine factory and a small car plant, and despite this business success the young Otto had decided to enter the world of science. His life is the story of a man who achieved great things despite living in a time of true adversity. Otto studied at the Chemical and Technological Faculty of the Czechoslovak Technical University in Prague, and in 1939 he received his second doctorate.

Of course, 1939 also happened to be the year when the Nazis rolled into Czechoslovakia, and as such Otto’s hopes of further academic activity were scuppered. He had taken on a teaching post a little earlier, and was subsequently banned from teaching. Still, the Nazis couldn’t keep him away from science entirely, and Otto went to work at the Bata shoe factory in Zlín. It was here that he started working with polymerisation, the chemical process to combine two or more monomers. His work almost immediately came to fruition with the creation of silon. Unfortunately, his refusal to disclose the invention to the Nazis (he was convinced they would use it for nefarious means) led to his imprisonment in 1942. 

The Nazi occupation wouldn’t last forever of course, and Otto returned to academia once the war had ended. He specialised in organic chemistry, writing books and lecturing on the subject. He would soon find his true calling though, and that very calling first popped its head out of the foxhole on a train to Prague in 1952. He was speaking to someone who was reading about metal implants for eyeball replacement, which led to Otto remarking that a better idea would be to invent a type of plastic for implants that could be compatible with the surrounding tissue. Otto had been making polymers for the human body, coming up with artificial cartilage and larynxes among other things, and his focus now moved on to the eye.

It was clear to Mr. Wichterle that the hard contact lenses that were ubiquitous throughout the world of visual impairment couldn’t be the final say on the matter. They were irritating, uncomfortable, bothersome and all the other words that mean the same thing. Otto realised that any plastic that came into contact with living tissue needed to have a high water content as well as permeable qualities. He experimented with HEMA, or hydrogel polyhydroxyethyl methacrylate if you’d prefer the full term. This was a transparent polymer gel that could absorb water, for those looking to add it to their polymer cards.

A little more adversity first though, although in this instance it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Czechoslovakia was politically all over the place in the late 1950s, and a whole host of ‘politically unreliable’ professors were purged from their positions throughout the country. Otto was one of these, and once again he found himself out of a job. Despite the obvious downsides, the unexpected extra leisure time gave him opportunity to experiment.

It also meant that he had bugger all in terms of equipment, but this was no problem for Otto. As his wife Linda attested, he destroyed many an object in the hope of making something new.  Otto first attempted to make lenses in polystyrene moulds, but the irregular edges that came out of this rendered the product useless. Undeterred, Otto made himself a cup of coffee and deliberated further. It was then that he realised that a fine parabolic plane was achieved when dissolving sugar into coffee. Finally, caffeine helped! Otto wanted to find out if a lens could be made by a similarly quick mixing method.

He didn’t really have any equipment at all though, so he searched the house for things to destroy. It was Christmas time in Czechoslovakia, and Otto Wichterle was in luck. His sons were fairly adept at building things using their Merkur set. Merkur was a metal construction set, not a million miles away from Meccano. Either way, Otto used it to construct his apparatus. He also destroyed a gramophone in the process, because why not? A motor was needed, and gramophones were old hat. The apparatus was complete, and on Christmas 1961 Otto Wichterle produced the first soft contact lenses in history.

The lenses weren’t exactly an immediate success however. Wichterle took them around the world, hoping to gain interest from investors, but in the man’s own words they were treated like a joke. It wasn’t until a demonstration in Prague, where Otto removed the lens from his eye, threw it on the floor, stood on it, washed it and returned it to his eye that they took off. Yes, that is a thing that actually happened. The Czechoslovakian government sold the rights to his invention for $330,000, and just five years later the patent was purchased by Bausch and Lomb for $3,000,000. Today, over 100 million people on the planet use soft contact lenses. For his troubles Otto Wichterle received just $330. His international fame helped out though, and he was thought to own the only private tennis court in Prague.

Ironically, Otto Wichterle wore glasses until his death in Stražisko on August 18, 1988.

‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is available for purchase, we swear. To pick up a print copy of the book (€20 plus postage), send us an email at miseryslavic@gmail.com. The digital version is available on Amazon at the link linked here , although you can also buy the digital copy through us. That is unless you think Amazon deserves 30% of the work.

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