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

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living