Otto Wichterle (Czech pronunciation: [ˈoto ˈvɪxtr̩lɛ]; 27 October 1913 – 18 August 1998) was a Czech chemist, best known for his invention of modern soft contact lenses.
Otto Wichterle was specialised in Organic Chemistry although he was good at chemistry in general. He has been widely recognised for his achievement in chemistry. And he has been appreciated by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.
Wichterle was born in Prostejov in the Czech Republic and graduated high school at the Wolker Grammer School in Prostejov. He proceeded to read chemistry at the Czech Technical University which is now called the University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague.
Wichterle pursued his scientific academic interests. He studied organic chemistry from the Prague Institute of Chemical technology where he earned a doctorate. After completing his education, Wichterle took up teaching and was a professor at the same institute in the 1950s.
Wichterle’s father Karel was co-owner of a successful farm-machine factory and small car plant but Otto chose science for his career. After finishing high school (today’s Wolker Grammar School) in Prostějov, Wichterle began to study at the Chemical and Technological Faculty of the Czech Technical University (now the independent University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague).
But he was also interested in medicine. He graduated in 1936 and stayed at the university. In 1939 submitted his second doctorate thesis on chemistry, but the Protectorate regime blocked any further activity at the university. However, Wichterle was able to join the research institute at Baťa’s works in Zlín and continue his scientific work.
At Baťa’s institute Wichterle 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.
After World War II Wichterle returned to the university, specializing in organic chemistry, and was active in teaching general and inorganic chemistry. He wrote an inorganic chemistry textbook, the concept of which was ahead of its time, and also wrote a German and Czech organic chemistry textbook. In 1949 he expanded his second doctorate with the technology of plastics and devoted himself fully to the establishment of a new department of plastics technology.
Wichterle is the author or co-author of approximately 180 patents and over 200 publications. The studies and independent books covered various aspects of organic, inorganic and macromolecular chemistry, polymer science and biomedical materials.
Serve the community
He had an even higher number of patents out for organic synthesis, polymerization, fibres, the synthesis and shaping of biomedical materials, production methods and measuring devices related to biomedical products. This was typical of his attitude to scientific research which, he considered, ought to serve society and its requirements by any means possible, without distinction as to “pure” and “applied” science.
Working at his kitchen table, using an old phonograph and an Erector set, Otto Wichterle invented the soft contact lens and the process to manufacture it. In addition to being more comfortable than traditional glass or hard plastic lenses, Wichterle’s lenses were less expensive, required a shorter adjustment period, and could be worn for longer periods of time.
Born in Prostjov, Moravia, Wichterle earned his Ph.D. from the Prague Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT). He worked as a professor at ICT in the 1950s creating a material suitable for eye implants known as hydroxy ethyl methacrylate, or HEMA, a polymer gel that absorbed water and was transparent.
5500 lenses in 5 months
Forced to leave ICT in a political purge, Wichterle continued his work on hydrogels at home with his wife, a doctor. In 1961, using his homemade device, he developed a spin-casting process that used centrifugal force to forge HEMA into soft, pliable lenses. Wichterle and his wife produced 5,500 lenses within five months. He made little money from his invention because the Czech government owned the rights to his process. The government sold those rights to an American optometrist for $330,000.
In 1966, Bausch and Lomb purchased the rights for $3 million. More than 100 million people improve their vision with contact lenses.
As explained by his grandson, the discovery came about in a difficult period for his grandfather. Until 1958, Dr. Wichterle had been the dean of the Institute for Chemical Technology in Prague, having acquired dozens of patents for various polymer materials, among them Silon, a substance similar to nylon that he developed in the late 1940’s. But in that year Communist Party officials dismissed him from his position, calling him politically unreliable.
About this time he discovered a polymer called HEMA, or hydrogel poly-hydroxyethyl methacrylate, which was a hydrophilic, or water-loving, plastic able to retain moisture. Dr. Wichterle, who had long had an interest in finding materials that could be adaptable to the body, realized that HEMA might be used to form a corrective lens.
With his wife, Lidia, who was trained as a doctor, he used his newly found leisure to experiment with ways of forging the material into soft and pliable lenses. Using the motor of an old phonograph and a child’s Erector set, he was able to discover the spin-casting process, which forms the basis of soft lens manufacturing.
When did Otto Wichterle invent the contact lens
From 1953, Otto Wichterle commenced his research in how to develop a contact lense. After gradual processes, Otto produced his first four contact lenses using a hydrophilic polymer called hydrogel in 1961.
Wichterle became well known because of his international activities. They were including presentations at congresses of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. He filed approximately 180 patents pertaining to his work in organic synthesis, polymerization, production methods, and measuring devices.
He was expelled from the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry in 1970. Because he had signed “The Two Thousand Words,” a manifesto supporting continuation of the democratization that had begun during the Prague Spring of
1968. He resumed his scientific activities following the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
Although widely known specifically for his contact lens invention, this prolific chemist also made other noteworthy contributions to science. He paved the way for state-of-the-art, contemporary medical technologies namely, “smart” biomaterials. He also contributed immensely towards bio-recognisable polymers which led on to establish a new standard for drug administration.
Wichterle dedicated his life to science and was a lifelong researcher.
The world recognises Otto Wichterle’s contributions today. And it wishes him like Google wrote, “Happy birthday, Otto Wichterle- thanks for helping the world see eye to eye!”
In 1952 he was made the dean of the newly established Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague. From that time Wichterle devoted himself to studying the synthesis of cross-linking hydrophilous gels, with the aim of finding a material suitable for use in permanent contact with living tissues.
Wichterle accepted the help of one of his colleagues, Drahoslav Lím. And together they succeeded in preparing a cross-linking gel which absorbed up to 40% water. It exhibited suitable mechanical properties and was transparent. This new material was the Poly(2-hydroxyethyl methacrylate) (pHEMA), that they patented in 1953. Wichterle thought pHEMA might be a suitable material for contact lenses and gained his first patent for soft contact lenses.
In 1954 this material was first used as an orbital implant. Wichterle produced around 100 soft lenses from closed polystyrene molds. They required hand finishing too. Unfortunately, Wichterle and other prominent teachers had to leave the Institute of Chemical Technology after a political purge staged by its Communist leadership in 1958.
Research into contact eye lenses at the Institute of Chemical Technology came to an end. The International Symposium on Macromolecular Chemistry held in Prague in 1957. It convinced the state leadership of the need to establish a centre for research into synthetic polymers.
The Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (CSAS) came into being in 1958, with Professor Wichterle appointed its director. Since the institute’s building was under construction at that time. Professor Wichterle conducted the decisive experiments to transform hydrogels into a suitable contact lens shape at his home.
By late 1961 Wichterle succeeded in producing the first four hydrogel contact lenses on a home-made apparatus built using a children’s building kit (Merkur), a bicycle dynamo belonging to one of his sons, and a bell transformer. Wichterle also made all the moulds and glass tubing needed to dose them with monomer. On Christmas afternoon, with the help of his wife Linda, using the machine on his kitchen table, Wichterle finally succeeded.
He tried the lenses in his own eyes and although they were the wrong power they were comfortable. Thus, he invented a new way of manufacturing the lenses using a centrifugal casting procedure. A few days later, he completed his patent application and produced over 100 lenses by spin casting. He built several new prototype machines using Merkur toys with increasing numbers of spindles which required the stronger motor taken from his gramophone.
With these rudimentary devices, in the first four months of 1962, Wichterle and Linda made 5,500 lenses. And the later production lenses Spofalens after the state enterprise SPOFA which manufactured them.
In 1965 National Patent Development Corporation (NPDC) bought the American rights to produce the lenses and then sublicensed the rights to Bausch & Lomb which started to manufacture them in the USA. And in May 1977 the CSAS sold these patents to avoid any liability if the court case failed. However, Wichterle and NPDC won the court case in 1983.
Later recognition and Czechoslovakia reform
Wichterle came to be well-known beyond the frontiers of his country. Not only through his achievements but also because of his activities in international organizations, chief among which was the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC).
He took part in the preparations for its Prague symposia in 1957 and 1965, which were much applauded by participants. He had a hand in the inauguration of its fifth, macromolecular, division, of which he was to become the first president, and he gained further credit by combining within it what were for normal administrative purposes the separate fields of pure and applied chemistry.
In 1970, Wichterle was expelled again from his position in the institute. 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. Punishment by the regime included removing him from his executive positions. And it making his research more and more difficult mainly by cutting off contacts from abroad. And it limiting his teaching opportunities.
Full recognition did not come until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. And he was the honorary president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic after that.
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