A Brief History of the Contact Lens

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From a Renaissance Visionary to Vision Correction for the Masses

As a contact lens wearer myself, I feel infinitely indebted to the tiny silicone discs I insert into my eyes daily. Being blind as a bat, I suspect I’d have been among the first to have been eaten by a saber tooth tiger in caveman times, and am thus grateful to the wonders of modern science for the powers of vision correction. That said, I was surprised to discover that the history of the contact lens actually goes back some 500 years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the ever forward thinking Leonardo da Vinci who is credited with the first concept for altering the eye’s optics. In his 1508 Codex of the Eye, Da Vinci made the perceptive observation that submerging your eyes into a bowl of water perceivably alters your vision. A century or so later, René Descartes proposed a different method for vision correction, whereby a glass tube filled with liquid is directly attached to the eye. Descartes’ notion was an interesting step in the right direction, albeit an impractical one, preventing the proposed wearer from blinking.

It would be another 200 years before a bright mind explored a more practical approach. In 1845 Sir John Herschel proposed a rather repulsive sounding solution for vision correction. He suggested that ‘a spherical capsule of glass filled with animal jelly’ could be fitted directly to the cornea. Though Herschel apparently never tested these ideas, others soon began taking the concept of the contact lens a step further.

Sticking glass in your eye may not sound like an advisable idea; however this is exactly what the next generation of experimental ophthalmologist began to try, with a surprising degree of success. 1887 saw German ophthalmologist Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick fit the first successful contact lenses made of heavy blown glass shells. He initially tested his lenses on a group of unlucky rabbits before popping them in his own eyes. Though they did the job, the thick glass covered the entire visible part of the eye and was never comfortable for the wearer. More importantly, these prototype glass lenses as well as later hard plastic models prevented the eye from ‘breathing’ properly.

It wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that hard lenses were developed to correct the problem of oxygen permeability. However the success of these lenses was rapidly eclipsed by the rise in popularity of soft lenses. Czech chemists Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lim are credited with the original breakthrough in soft lenses, published in their work “Hydrophilic gels for biological use” in 1959. Dr. Wichterle took his concept a step further by creating a means for the production of these lenses. In 1961, he began experimenting at home with his son’s erector set and bicycle parts. Using the unlikely tools at hand, Dr. Wichterle created the prototype of the spin-casting machine used to produce the world’s first soft contact lenses.

This concept was picked up by Bausch & Lomb, and in 1972 the soft, breathable lenses hit the mass market. However, it would take several decades before the materials of the soft contact lens were perfected, becoming the durable silicone hydrogels familiar today. Contact lenses have certainly come a long way from the sketches in da Vinci’s notebook to the daily disposables available at places like LensWay. I suppose among other things we have a group of German rabbits and some Czech children’s toys to thank for our modern vision advancement.