The tree of knowledge: a tribute to Otto Wichterle /1913 -1998/

Tree of Knowledge

Millions of people around the world could not imagine their life without modern contact lenses. But few of them know that the man who invented them was professor Otto Wichterle, an outstanding Czech chemist who had many notable achievements to his name, and died in 1998. This week academics and scientists from around the Czech Republic gathered outside the Prague Institute of Macro-Molecular Chemistry for the unveiling of a monument to one of the great minds of the last century.

Jaroslava Moserova, a leading plastic surgeon, is one of many who remember Otto Wichterle as a respected colleague and a trusted friend.

"He was the most exceptional and wise person that I've ever met - really. I mean I have met people who you could say were maybe more exceptional like the Dalai Lama, but the wisdom, the wisdom of Wichterle is unequalled. "

Otto Wichterle
Outside the Institute of Macro-Molecular Chemistry now stands a two metre tall bronze statue depicting the Tree of Knowledge. Every one of its branches bears the number of a patent recognizing one of the professor's inventions. Besides the already mentioned contact lenses, the most well known is the synthetic fibre "silon" which his team invented in 1941, an invention that was made independently of nylon, first made in America in 1938. The production of silon was not launched until ten years later, due first to the concealment of the invention from the Nazi occupiers and later due to the problems of the post war industry. When the Institute of Macro-molecular Chemistry came into being in 1958 prof. Wichterle was appointed its director. Three years later, on Christmas Day of 1961, using a children's construction set he conducted the decisive experiments to transform hydrogels into a suitable shape for a contact lens in his own home. Inexplicably, without Wichterle's knowledge the Academy of Sciences sold the contact lenses patent to the Unites States National Patent Development Corporation. Mass production of contact lenses thus took place mostly abroad, mainly in the US. Jaroslava Moserova says that Otto Wichterle managed to achieve a great deal even swimming against the tide of the communist regime.

"At the time when he made these discoveries - mainly the soft contact lenses - he was not in the favour of the totalitarian government. So all his excellent achievements were played down and the public didn't know of them. I knew of them. I was fortunate enough to know him in person, but the man in the street simply didn't know. And it was not only the inventions. He was an excellent manager and, as I said, he had foresight, which so few people have. He had foresight not only in science but in life in general, in politics, in economy, in everything. If we had more people like him this country would be much better off."