“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude”
– Thornton Wilder
The Czech have a saying for when someone’s machine or invention works so perfectly, that it must have been the work of a divine touch. Zlaté české ručičky – golden Czech hands. That is exactly what Otto Wichterle must have had, as not only one, but two of his inventions spread throughout the world like wildfire in the competitive era that was the second half of the 20th century. This talented chemist invented both the Contact lenses and Nylon, which is commonly worn in the form of nylons. This is his story:
Otto Wichterle was born on October 27, 1913. He came from a wealthy family of Prostějov entrepreneurs and his father Karel Wichterle was a co-owner of Wichterle and Kovářík (Wikov). At the age of six, as a result of the shock from almost drowning in a pond of slurry, he suffered from fevers that did not subside all summer. The family doctor ordered bed rest and predicted maximum one more year of life. After this incident, he started being home schooled. During this time, he proved to be very gifted, and thus, after another two years (when he was still not dying), Otto started primary school in Kollárka in 1921 – after being examined by the principal, he went straight to the fifth grade. However that meant that for the rest of his studies, he was always two years younger than any of his classmates. While that led to a very sad childhood, the lack of friends probably enabled him to focus on his studies and achieve what he did.
During his studies at the Faculty of Chemical-Technology Engineering at the Czech Technical University in Prague, he not only excelled academically, but also became politically engaged, when he was elected as the leader of a student society called SPICH, which subsequently became the only left-oriented student society at the whole CTU, thus the only one opposing the right wing ideas coming from Germany in the pre-WW2 period. Luckily, he managed to finish his studies before Hitler came to the Czech lands. However he still continued to work at the University’s laboratory before it was closed by the aforementioned oppressor on November 17th 1939.
After November 17th, the universities were sealed shut (all chemical equipment remained inside) and executions and deportations of university students were followed by the arrests of university teachers, especially those who did not immediately find a different job. Thus, In mid-December, when Baťa’s laboratories offered Otto a place in the Baťa Chemical Research Workshops, he accepted it despite the fact that his wife Linda had an aversion to Zlín’s materialist society. At that point, it was a question of life or death. He took up employment on January 2, 1940, and worked under Associate Professor Stanislav Landa. Wichterle remembered him as an excellent chemist and a great leader. Landa agreed that Otto would decide the topic of the research on his own and would be able to publish the results. Such a freedom was uncommon in science at that time.
Despite his initial hesitation about this job, Wichterle made the best of it. He focused on verifying Carothers’ patents on Nylon 66. However, this nylon had one basic problem. It could not be spun into fibers. However, Wichterle had the experience and talent needed to make it work. In one of the first experiments, a macromolecular polyamide was prepared, the melt of which could be drawn into long solid fibers. Thanks to this success, Wichterle was assigned additional staff and a new Department of Materials was created. In this new department, a method of industrial production of this new substance was prepared – it was necessary to ensure the cheapest possible method of production of the necessary raw materials, especially caprolactam (the basic substance needed for the production of Nylon 6). In June of 1941, the first yarn was already spun and even the first nylon socks and women’s nylon stockings were created.
The first impulse to work on the development of soft contact lenses was his random conversation on a train on the way from Olomouc to Prague in 1952. A fellow passenger read an expert article on the possibilities of surgical eye replacement. Wichterle realized that plastic would be a better implant material than precious metals. He therefore began to develop a theory of a three-dimensional hydrophilic polymer that would be well tolerated by the eye. Thanks to his vast knowledge of chemistry, he quickly realized HEMA gel (polyhydroxyethyl methacrylate gel) would be most suitable. It absorbs about 40% of water, is transparent and has good mechanical properties. The problem was its processing. At first, the gel was poured into metal molds, but the lenses tore when the molds were opened and had irregular edges. Then came the year 1958, when Wichterle was released from the ICT, and the research of hydrophilic gels and lenses there was liquidated. Many of his collaborators, including Drahoslav Lím, went to the IMC together with Wichterle, and the research continued under the support of the IMC. A new method was created on the premises of the institute – gel casting into glass molds. Thus, a lens with precise optics in the middle part was obtained. Some lenses hardly irritated the eye, but the yields were still small due to the complex grinding of the edges. Thus even this research was shut down. Nevertheless, Wichterle never backed down and made the discovery of the final piece of the puzzle, the fact that high-quality contact lenses can be produced at minimal cost by the method of monomeric centrifugal casting in rotating molds, within his home in 1961. For this he used a prototype made out of a children’s toy and a motor from a gramophone.
After several months of negotiations, a licensing agreement was signed in Prague on March 12, 1965 with Robert Morrison and the National Patent Development Corporation (NPDC), represented by Martin Pollak and Jerome Feldman. They founded the joint-stock company Flexible Contact Lens Corporation, whose sublicense partner in 1966 became Bausch & Lomb, one of the most important manufacturers of contact lenses to this day. When the Food and Drug Administration issued a license to market lenses in March 1971, B & L’s stock capital rose $250 million overnight. However, none of this money ever reached Wichterle, as he was stuck in the ČSSR, a deeply communist country which would not let him out under any circumstances.
Until he was eighty, he enjoyed playing tennis with his wife. For even longer, he took care of two gardens, including work with a chainsaw. Otto Wichterle died at his summer residence in the village of Stražisko (Prostějov district) on August 18, 1998 at the age of 84. He was buried in the Municipal Cemetery in Prostějov.
Please, do not let him be forgotten.