The Inventor of the Modern day Contact Lenses – Otto Wichterle

Professor Otto Wichterle, had the greatest influence on contact lenses since the second world war. Wichterle tried to make contact lenses in a mold using HEMA (hydroxyethylmethacrylate), developed the spin casting process, the first effective production method for soft contact lenses.

He was born in Prostejov, Northern Moravia, and after a sickly childhood wanted to study mechanical engineering at university. A friend, however, suggested chemistry and about this time he developed an interest in politics. In 1936 he received his first doctorate and subsequently produced his first synthetic polymer in 1938-9. He then worked as an assistant to Professor Vototek until the closure of the Czech universities by the Nazis in November 1939.

After finishing high school, Wichterle decided to study at the Chemical and Technological Faculty of the Czech Technical University (now the independent Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague). He graduated in 1936 and stayed at the university until further activity was blocked by the Protectorate regime in 1939. However, Wichterle was able to join the research institute at Baja’s works in Zlín and continue his scientific work. There he led the technical preparation of plastics, namely polyamide and caprolactam. In 1941, Wichterle’s team invented the procedure to throw and spool polyamide thread thus making the first Czechoslovak synthetic fiber under the name silon (the invention came independently of the original American nylon procedure in 1938). Wichterle was imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1942 but was released after a few months.

Wichterle returned to the university after World War II to specialize in organic chemistry and was active in teaching and writing a textbook of organic chemistry. He was made the dean in 1952 of the newly established Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague. Six years later, in 1958, he was expelled from it in one of the political purges held by the communist chairmanship of the institute. A year later, he became the chief of the new Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (CSAS), which he joined in 1955.

In the institute, he planned to continue his research on the polymerization of lactams and on the use of thinly cross-linking hydrogels that he had patented earlier, in 1953, together with Drahoslav Lím. As the institute was only being constructed at that time, Wichterle carried out the first experiments at home. He succeeded by late 1961 in producing the first four hydrogel contact lenses on a home-made apparatus built using a children’s building kit (Merkur). Thus, he invented a new way of manufacturing the lenses using a centrifugal casting procedure. The CSAS inexplicably, and without Wichterle’s knowledge, sold the patent rights to the United States National Patent Development Corporation (and later even consented to cancellation of the licence agreements). Actual mass production of contact lenses took place mostly abroad, mainly in the United States.

Otto Wichterle’s original Spin Casting Machine

Wichterle was dismissed as Director of the IMC in December 1969, this time for signing the "Two Thousand Words" — a manifesto asking for the continuation of the democratization process begun in 1968 during the Prague Spring. In essence, the "Two Thousand Words" was a call for the people of Czechoslovakia to hold their party accountable to standards of openness—not open revolution. Vaculik began with an assessment of how the nation had declined under the CCP, painting a picture of moral and economic decay in which workers made no decisions for themselves. Punishment by the regime included removing him from his executive positions and making his research more and more difficult mainly by cutting off contacts from abroad and limiting his teaching opportunities. Eventually he managed to get very short-term contract work at the IMC, quietly to continue his research. He successfully created a number of medical applications for hydrogels including implants to vocal cords, capillary drains for the surgical treatment of glaucoma, implants for the direct infusion of drugs to tumours, an artificial larynx, substitution of the vitreous body including instruments for its replacement, hydrophilised heart pumps, the production of Xerogel rods for contact lens lathing, toric contact lenses, gel inserts to bronchi for drug administration for asthmatics, veterinary implants for the synchronisation of rutting, and a number of other small services to medicine.

In 1990, he was made president of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences till the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and was the honorary president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic after that. In all he wrote six books, over 100 publications in scientific journals and held over 150 patents. He received a great many awards during and after his life. In 1993, Asteroid 3899 was named Wichterle and a statue was erected outside the IMC in 2005.

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