Obituary: Otto Wichterle

Ian A. Mackie
Saturday 22 August 1998 00:02

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.

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