Personalities: Otto Wichterle, Czech Inventor of Contact Lenses commemorated on Czech stamp

October 17th, 2013

Otto Wichterlewas born on 27 October 1913 in Prostejov and died on 18 August 1998 in Strazicko. This world-renowned scientist became famous mainly due to soft contact lenses. Otto Wichterle was commemorated on a new Czech stamp.

He was born into a rich business family in Prostejov. At the age of 6, he almost died from a persistent fever. He was therefore home-schooled. After his recovery he went directly to the fifth year and, at the young age of 9, he was admitted to a state-run grammar school. He graduated with honours. He wanted to study mathematics and physics at university, his was choice was therefore between mechanical engineering and chemistry. He decided to study chemical technology engineering at the Czech Technical University in Prague.

He wrote his thesis under the tutelage of Professor Votocek, an important chemist and co-author of the Czech chemical nomenclature. His idea of a scientific study free of any commercial or political interests had a strong impact on Wichterle. Wichterle continued his studies at the school of medicine, which offered him the possibility to join a new discipline, biochemistry.

Following the events on 17 November 1939, when all Czech universities were closed by the Nazis, he took up a job in Bata Shoe Company's chemical research laboratory. He began with the research of Nylon 66, a synthetic polymer which was not suitable for the fibre spinning process. His previous experience helped him find a treatment which made nylon suitable for fibre applications. This led to the industrial production of silon, a synthetic material used mainly in men's socks and women's tights.

But his best known invention are gel contact lenses. The start-up of their production suffered from many problems, inaccuracies and low yields. In 1961, Wichterle used a Merkur modelling kit for children and a gramophone motor to build a prototype of the production machine; the process was eventually simplified and ready for large-scale production. In 1965, his invention attracted large U.S. companies which started the production of contact lenses abroad.

Wichterle's political neutrality caused him a lifetime of problems, especially during the communist regime. He had to wait until after 1989 for well-deserved honours and awards. In 1990, he was elected President of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences.

He remained in the office until the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993. In 1993, Charles University awarded him a degree honoriscausa and a planet in our solar system was named after him. Starting from 2002, talented scientists younger than 35 years may receive an Otto Wichterle Award granted by the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.