Czech Made: The soft contact lens

Otto Wichterle, photo: Academy of Sciences
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The contact lens – a tiny, soft, see-through thing, weighing next to nothing, yet it makes a huge difference in our lives. Hundreds of millions of people around the world wear contacts every day, but they may not be aware that the invention of the modern soft contact lens came from this country.

From Leonardo da Vinci to Otto Wichterle

Otto Wichterle and Emil Votoček,  photo: Academy of Sciences

The idea to correct or enhance human vision with a device inserted into the eye is very old. It can be traced back to Leonardo da Vinci’s writings in the early 16th century. The end of the 19th century saw the very first glass lenses and in the 1940s, the first corneal lenses were developed. However, these early rigid lenses were quite expensive and fragile and certain types did not allow the eyes to breathe. But in the 1950s, Czech chemists came up with just the right kind of material.

Otto Wichterle was born in 1913 into a family of entrepreneurs but his career of choice was science. He graduated from the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague and went on to study medicine. After the Nazis closed Czech universities, he was offered the opportunity to establish a laboratory at the Baťa shoe company in Zlín. After 1945 he returned to Prague and helped reinstate chemistry lectures at the university.

Otto Wichterle,  photo: Academy of Sciences

The story of the modern soft contact lens began one fine summer day in 1952, when Otto Wichterle travelled on a train to Prague. Jiří Michálek from the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry was a one-time colleague of Professor Wichterle.

“It’s a nice story. Professor Wichterle was travelling on a train where he met a man who was reading a medical journal about ocular prosthetics. They had a conversation about the topic. The man turned out to be a government health official and he facilitated a meeting for professor Wichterle and subsequent talks about the matter.”

The two men agreed on the need for a soft material that would be well tolerated by the human body, ideally some kind of plastic. As a matter of fact, this was precisely the area of Otto Wichterle’s research. He envisaged materials that could bind water and proceeded to actually develop them.

The invention of the soft hydrophilic gel

Many did not believe that the soft hydrophilic polymethacrylate gel he developed could have good optical properties but in 1959 tests proved that soft hydrophilic lenses were able to correct vision and were well tolerated by patients.

Čočkostroj,  photo: Jan Suchý,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0

In 1958, Otto Wichterle was fired from the University of Chemistry and Technology for his unwillingness to apply political criteria in the assessment of students. A few months later, he was employed by the more liberal Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and later became the founder and first director of its Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry.

In 1960, the article “Hydrophilic gels for biological use” was published in the British scientific journal Nature, authored by Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lím. It was considered a breakthrough in the history of the soft lens. It is hard to believe that in 1961, the health ministry cancelled the research. But Professor Wichterle continued in his experiments at home.

Drahoslav Lím,  photo: ČT

Once he had the revolutionary material, the next step was the production of the lens itself. One day he was stirring his coffee and the centrifugal force inspired him to try and produce the lenses in some kind of a spinning bowl. And it worked. Professor Wichterle constructed the legendary čočkostroj – or “lens-machine” used for spin-casting lenses in his own bedroom. He built it using his children's toy construction set and a bicycle dynamo. With the help of his wife Linda, a stomatologist, he produced the first hydrogel contact lenses on this home-made apparatus during Christmas of 1961. Immediately after Christmas Otto Wichterle submitted a patent application.

The soft lens conquers the world

In 1964 he presented his invention to a foreign licencing partner. He demonstrated the resilience of the material by wearing the lens, taking it out of his eye, stepping on it, then cleaning it between his fingers and in his mouth and putting it back into his eye. In 1965, the first contract was signed between the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and the US National Patent Development Corporation which sublicensed the rights to a commercial producer. In 1972 the company finally got the green light from the US Food and Drug Administration and was able to launch the first hydrophilic soft contact lenses on the market.

Hema,  photo: Archive of Radio Prague

Since then, further research has been taken over by commercial subjects and has primarily focused on the user, as Jiří Michálek says. “The current efforts are to maximize comfort and safety for the wearer. Despite false claims that wearing contact lenses can be dangerous, if all hygiene and safety principles are observed, as well as recommendations from your doctor, wearing contact lenses is safe. It is bad care and handling of the lenses that can lead to infection and inflammation.”

The 1970s were marked by legal disputes in the United States over Professor Wichterle’s patents and for fear of having to pay large legal fees, Czechoslovakia gave up its rights for a fraction of their value and thus lost a large part of its revenue. Some say it is a pity that the country sold the rights instead of producing the lenses itself. Others say a small country behind the Iron Curtain with a state-controlled economy would not have been able to produce and efficiently distribute the product in sufficient quantity, not mentioning marketing.

Photo: Miloš Turek

Even though the soft contact lens is now primarily a commercial concern, the materials developed by Professor Otto Wichterle are still studied by scientists. Jiří Michálek from the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry:

“Contact lenses are today a subject for commercial research and development which concerns design, innovations and user routine, but the legacy of professor Wichterle lives on because scientists continue to look for further use of his materials in medicine. From contact lenses to intraocular lens implants, to various other implants where the hydrogel polymer can be of practical use. Because it swells up, it can be used as a tissue expander, in dental surgery, in implants that release bio-active substances in the treatment of cancer, or in vocal cord and urological implants. Hydrogel implants are closely studied because they are so similar to the inner environment of the human body. Working with Professor Wichterle was a great lecture and I personally benefit from it to this day. I believe we may not have yet exhausted his predictions as to what could be made from those materials.”

Scientist and citizen

Professor Wichterle is described by his former colleagues as a man of high intelligence, versatility, passion for problem solving, profound knowledge of many subjects, manual dexterity, fluency in a number of foreign languages and also personal and moral integrity and courage.

Photo: Gedesby1989,  Pixabay / CC0

In the spring of 1968, he was one of the men behind a political manifesto and one of its first signatories. The document was later labelled as counterrevolutionary by the Communist Party and its signatories were persecuted. Professor Wichterle lost his job as the director of the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry. For a brief period, he was also a deputy of the national and federal parliament but he resigned in late 1969.

After the Velvet Revolution he returned to public life and became the chairman of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. Otto Wichterle died in 1998 aged 84. There is a fascinating story behind many everyday objects. Next time you put in your contacts in the morning, you may remember the story of the ingenious and brave Czech academic Otto Wichterle and his “lens-machine” fashioned from a children’s toy construction set.

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