Otto Wichterle

Today in Mailbox: Response to former Prime Minister’s new political party, your answers to last month’s mystery Czech quiz question. Listeners quoted: Lynda-Marie Hauptmann, Peter Komrska, Chun-quan Meng, Jayanta Chakrabarty, Bibi N-Shah, Barbara M. Ziemba, Ian Morrison, Colin Law, Charles Konecny, David Eldridge.

Jiří Paroubek,  photo: archive of the Czech Government
Hello and welcome to Mailbox, Radio Prague’s programme devoted to your questions and comments. Many thanks for all your feedback as well as competition answers which we will get to later. First though, Lynda-Marie Hauptmann from the United States responded to former Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek's resignation from the Social Democrats, and his move to form a new political party entitled the National Socialists – 21st century Left.

“I actually think it is great that the Czech Republic has more than one political party to draw candidates from, rather than the gridlock we Americans get with only two major parties, which usually means any smaller or newer parties here are shut out of elections, and Americans get only two political viewpoints. As the world has witnessed, this isn't always so great, because the Democrats and Republicans have no problems with shutting down the country and acting like little kids throwing tantrums.

“However, there is one thing I hope Mr. Paroubek and those in sympathy with his viewpoint would take into consideration – is there any OTHER name their proposed new party could use? I seem to recall that ‘National Socialist’ was the full name of the German Nazi Party during WWII. I don't think Mr. Paroubek has any sympathy with or connections to THAT National Socialist party, but the name does have ugly connotations.

“Of course, the translation from the Czech into English might be somewhat awkward, and it just SEEMS like it might be a bad idea for a name. Sadly, though my dad was Czech, I do not speak the language, and I know translations into English can be very strange. Please correct me if I am wrong, I certainly would NOT want to seem like I am accusing a legitimate political movement of harkening back to a grim time in European history.”

Thank you for that comment and now let’s move to your competition answers.

Peter Komrska from Canada writes:

“This month’s mystery person is Czech chemist Otto Wichterle who invented the soft contact lens in around 1958. His genius was exemplified by a resourcefulness characteristic to any real inventor. Working in his kitchen he experimented with a new plastic called poly-hydroxyethyl methacrylate (HEMA). He developed the basics of the spin-casting process now used to make soft contact lenses. To do this he scavenged parts of old equipment he found around his home including a motor from a phonograph player, bicycle parts and a child’s erector set.”

Chun-quan Meng from China wrote:

“Undoubtedly, the mystery Czech scientist is Otto Wichterle. The first soft contact lens is the result of years of research by Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lím and is based on their earlier invention of a ‘hydrophilic’ gel. Soft contacts allow more oxygen to reach the eye's cornea than do hard plastic lenses.”

Jayanta Chakrabarty from India sent in this answer:

“Otto Wichterle invented the soft contact lens in 1961 and its manufacturing process literally from scraps – a gramophone motor and bits of toy construction items. An obsessive researcher who sought solutions to problems where others have failed. When spectacles were becoming a necessary nuisance, he came up with the idea of contact lenses that were less expensive, durable and required a shorter adjustment time. His unique invention improved the vision of some 100 million grateful people. Wichterle is also credited with the discovery of the polymer – hydrogen polyhydroxyethyl methacrylate and nylon fibre. Like most Czechs he led a simple life where search for knowledge was more important than making money. This fascinating Czech was an advocate of personal freedom and a staunch opponent of communism. He supported Alexander Dubček's idea for reform even at his own risk.”

Bibi N-Shah writes from Pakistan:

“Otto Wichterle, Czech chemist and the founder of the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry in Prague, was the inventor of soft contact lenses. He is also considered the founder of macromolecular chemistry and is the author of about 150 inventions. In 1993 one of the planetoids was named after Wichterle.”

Here is what Barbara M. Ziemba from the United States wrote:

“He was born in Prostějov in 1913. After high school, he moved to Prague, and it was there he enrolled in the Czech Technical University from which he graduated from in 1936. With the onset of difficult times, including the Nazi occupation, he continued his research work at the institute in Zlín. One of his most significant inventions, which was our big hint, were the hydro gel contact lenses which are still used today. He worked in his home kitchen, along with his wife, perfecting the soft contact lenses. It is said that Wichterle and his wife made over 5,500 lenses in their home for testing in 1961. In 1971 Bausch & Lomb licensed the technology and in the first year sold over 1000,000 pairs of lenses.

“After World War II he returned to Prague and taught at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague. His life was troubled with the political systems of the times. At one time he was imprisoned under the Nazis. And in 1970 he was expelled from the institute because he was among the signers of the Two Thousand Words manifesto. In 1990 he became the president of the Czechoslovak Academy of Science and later named an honorary president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.”

“The Czech scientist whose invention of contact lenses has allowed millions of people around the world to day goodbye to their spectacles was Otto Wichterle.”

Colin Law from New Zealand writes:

“The contact lens was invented by Leonardo da Vinci who described and sketched his ideas in 1508. However, it was not until 1888 that glass contact lenses were first made and worn on the eye. 1936 saw the introduction of plastic in the form of a circular band around a central glass lens and from 1948 lenses began to be made entirely of hard plastic. However, this month's question relates to the lenses now worn by 90% of contact lens users around the world, and that can only mean the inventor of soft contact lenses, Professor Otto Wichterle.

“Otto Wichterle 27 October 1913 was born in Prostĕjov, Moravia and died 18 August 1998 in Stražisko, Moravia.

“Otto did not join his father’s business interests in farm-machine and car production, but chose instead to study science at the Czech Technical University, graduating in 1936. After study was blocked in 1939 by the Protectorate regime Wichterle undertook research into plastics at the Baťa works in Zlín. His team made the first Czechoslovak synthetic fibre, named silon, in 1941. He was imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1942 but released a few months later. After the war Otto returned to university where he specialized in organic chemistry and taught general and inorganic chemistry. He wrote textbooks on organic and inorganic chemistry, the latter textbook is said to involve a concept far ahead of that time. In 1949 he gained a doctorate in technology of plastics.

“In the late 1950s Wichterle and his assistant Dr Drahoslav Lím experimented with a soft, water-absorbing plastic, hydroxyethyl methacrylate or HEMA, which they patented in 1953. Soon after that Wichterle gained his first patent for soft contact lenses. Sadly a purge by Communist authorities meant Wichterle and other teachers had to leave the Institute of Chemical Technology. However in 1958 Professor Wichterle was appointed director of the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences.

Otto Wichterle chemist,  patented 150 inventions,  the most famous of which is hydrogel,  used to make the first soft contact lenses in the world. This card depicts his machine for making lenses from 1961. | Photo: National Technical Museum
“By 1961, using his son’s construction set and a bicycle dynamo to make a spin-casting machine, Wichterle produced the world’s first soft contact lens. The work was done at home because the Institute building was still under construction. It was Christmas afternoon when. Assisted by his wife Lidia (a physician), he succeeded in producing the first usable soft contact lens on the kitchen table. He tested the lenses in his own eyes and they worked, despite the disadvantage of them being the wrong power for his eyes.

“In 1970 Otto Wichterle was again expelled from his position, this time because he had signed the”Two Thousand Words” manifesto. In 1971 Bausch and Lomb introduced the first commercially made soft contact lenses based on Otto's design. It seems odd that a regime would limit research and teaching opportunities for a successful scientist and inventor, however full recognition eventually came for Otto after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. In 1990 he was president of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and subsequently became honorary president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic in addition to receiving awards and doctorates from foreign academies.

“Asteroid 3899 was named after Wichterle in 1993. Otto Wichterle died in 1998 in Stražisko, Moravia at the age of 84. His sons Professor Ivan Wichterle DrSc and Prof. Ing. Kamil Wichterle, DrSc are both prominent in fields of chemistry and a grandson, Dr Hynek Wichterle PhD, is a Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology in the USA.”

Charles Konecny from the USA sent us this:

“After earning his Ph.D., Wichterle emerged as one of the world’s foremost scientists. He was a relentless researcher and although his research was interrupted when WW2 and the Nazis showed up and later by the political purges of the Communist era, he developed some 180 patents and wrote over 200 articles and books. After the war, his experiments with plastics and gels led to a development of a water absorbing polymer gel. This was used in his famous discovery of using the gel to make a soft plastic contact lens which he spun using a Merkur Set and a small electric motor in his own home. It is too bad the government sold the patent without his knowledge. Anyway, when someone raises a glass to toast another and says, ‘here's looking at you’, they could be looking through their contacts, thanks to Otto Wichterle. By the way, Otto preferred to wear glasses.”

And finally, David Eldridge from the United Kingdom writes:

“I am sure Otto Wichterle has been a mystery person before. My concern is that it seems just like a few months ago, but closer investigation shows it must have been quite some years ago, time flies!

“Otto Wichterle didn’t in fact invent the contact lens, he developed, or, you might say, invented the modern soft form of the contact lens.

“To me the most fascinating part of Wichterle’s work in the lens development is that he used the children’s construction toy ‘Merkur’, similar to the British ‘Meccano’ or American ‘Erector Set’, to develop a process whereby the lenses could be mass produced.

“I well remember ‘Meccano’ in Britain and it seems a great shame that such innovative kits are not now manufactured for children. Otto Wichterle epitomises the fascination those kits brought to children in the middle of the last century.”

Thank you so much for your answers. This time our prize goes to Peter Komrska from Canada. Congratulations and here is a brand new question and a chance for you to win a Radio Prague goodie bag.

In November we are looking for the name of the French mime born in 1796 in the Bohemian town of Kolín. He was most famous for his pantomimic character of Pierrot.

Please send us your answers as usual to [email protected] which is also the address for your questions and comments. Thanks for tuning in to Mailbox today and until next time, take care.