Obituary: Otto Wichterle

OTTO WICHTERLE was a chemist of international distinction who not only conceived, but brought to fruition, the hydrophilic soft contact lens which is now the principal item of visual correction for many millions of people in the world.

He was born in Prostejov, in what later became Czechoslovakia, the son of a producer of agricultural machinery. He began his career at the Institute of Experimental Organic Chemistry in Prague, but, when this was closed under German rule in 1939, he went to the Bata shoe manufacturing business. There he invented a nylon fibre which is frequently employed for industrial uses. He was imprisoned by the German Gestapo from 1942 until 1943.

After the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Wichterle became Professor of Macromolecular Chemistry at the Technical University of Prague. Numerous important appointments followed and, in 1961, after about 10 years of research, he started to manufacture hydrophilic soft contact lenses.

The early Czech soft hydrophilic contact lenses were manufactured by a spin cast technique during which polymerisation was taking place. These lenses were thick and there was often the problem that the lens did not act according to its stated dioptric power. Wichterle travelled extensively at this time and would distribute, gratis, handfuls of the lenses to interested ophthalmologists and optometrists world-wide.

A well-known American optometrist, Dr Robert Morrison, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, went to Prague at this time and was said to have bought the rights to the lenses from the Czech government for $330,000. Later, representatives from the National Patent Development Corporation arrived in Prague and are said to have bought rights for $1m; this may have been for the manufacturing technique. This corporation in turn are said to have sold the rights to the Bausch and Lomb Company for $3m. Bausch and Lomb then produced the lenses in America, again by the spin cast technique.

In the very early 1970s, an eminent optometrist from Boston, Dr Donald Korb, together with Dr Miguel Refogo, a senior scientist and polymer chemist at the Retina Foundation in Boston, founded a company called Corneal Sciences Incorporated which manufactured soft hydrophilic lenses from a different material which was lathed in the dry state. These lenses, for use in the short-sighted, were extremely thin and called membrane lenses. The great bulk of soft contact lenses are now manufactured by lathing technique, although hydroxyethyl methacrylate (Hema), Wichterle's original material, is still extensively used.

In 1968 Wichterle was a supporter of Alexander Dubcek, the Czechoslovak Communist Party leader, in his "Prague Spring" reforms. These were doomed to failure, however, and when Czechoslovakia was invaded and Dubcek arrested, this support led to Wichterle's being stripped of his academic orders and positions. He was dismissed as Director of the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry which he had, in fact, founded. He continued to work in a laboratory but was allowed no cleaning or maintenance staff.

In 1989, after the "Velvet Revolution", Wichterle was elected head of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and resumed his position at the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry.

In 1993, his 80th birthday was celebrated by a conference in Prague at the institute. To this conference came the leaders of contactology throughout the world. They came to Prague, which had lost all the sadness of its Communist years, to honour this intellectual giant. At 80 he was sharp as a pin.

Wichterle was the author of some 200 patents in organic chemistry, plastics and biomaterials. He was awarded an incredible number of awards and honours. He was tall, slim, elegant and kindly. The contact lens world adored him and so, as was evident to me, in 1993, did the professors and staff at his institute.

Ian A. Mackie

Otto Wichterle, chemist: born Prostejov, Austro-Hungarian Empire 27 October 1913; Assistant Lecturer, Institute of Experimental Organic Chemistry, Czech Technical University, Prague 1935-39, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Chemistry 1945, Professor of Macromolecular Chemistry 1949-69; Head of Polymer Department, Bata-Zln 1940-42, 1944-45; Head of Department of Macromolecular Chemistry, Institute of Chemistry 1955-59; Director, Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry 1959-70; President, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences 1990-98; married 1938 Ludmila Zahradnikova (two sons); died Strazisko, Czech Republic 18 August 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine