Otto Wichterle

From Academic Kids

Otto Wichterle (27 October, 1913 in Prostějov, Czech Republic - 18 August, 1998) was a Czech chemist and inventor, best known for his invention of modern contact lenses.

After finishing high school in Prostějov, Wichterle chose science for his career and began to study at the Chemical and Technological Faculty of the Czech Technical University (now the independent Institute of Chemical Technology) in Prague. He graduated in 1936 and stayed at the university until further activity was blocked by the Protectorate regime in 1939. However, Wichterle was able to join the research institute at Bata's works in Zlín and continue his scientific work. There he lead the technical preparation of plastics, namely polyamide and caprolactam. In 1941, Wichterle's team invented the procedure to throw and spool polyamide thread thus making the first Czechoslovak synthetic fiber under the name silon (the invention came independently of the original American nylon procedure in 1938). Wichterle was captured by the gestapo in 1942 but they released him after a few months.

After World War II, Wichterle returned to the university,specializing in organic chemistry and was active in teaching and writing a textbook of organic chemistry. In 1952 he was made the dean of the newly established Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague. However, six years later, in 1958, he was expelled from it in one of the political purges held by the communist chairmanship of the institute. A year later, he became the chief of the new Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry of the Czechoslovak Academy of Science (CSAS), which he joined in 1955. In the institute, he planned to continue his research on the polymerization of lactams and on the use of thinly cross-linking hydrogels that he had patented earlier, in 1953. As the institute was only being constructed at that time, Wichterle carried out the first experiments at home. By late 1961 he succeeded in producing the first four hydrogel contact lenses on a home-made apparatus built using a children's building kit. Thus, he invented a new way of manufacturing the lenses using a centrifugal casting procedure. The CSAS inexplicably, and without Wichterle's knowledge, sold the patent rights to the United States National Patent Development Corporation (and later even consented to cancellation of the licence agreements). Actual mass production of contact lenses took place mostly abroad, mainly in the United States.

In 1970, Wichterle was expelled again from his position in the institute, this time for signing the "2000 words" - a manifesto asking for the continuation of the democratization process begun in 1968 during the Prague spring. Punishment by the regime included removing him from his executive positions and making his research more and more difficult mainly by cutting off contacts from abroad and limiting his teaching opportunities. Full recognition did not come until the Velvet revolution in 1989. In 1990, he was made president of the CSAS till the separation of Czechoslovakia and was the honorary president of the Czech Academy of Science after that.

There is an asteroid, number 3899, named after prof. Wichterle in 1993.

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