A Brief History of Contact Lenses

(The text and images on this page were completed with the major help and kind assistance of Tim Bowden, a world's authority on contact lenses and their history. His contact lens practice is in Gillingham, Kent, UK.)

Contact Lens Timeline

Slideshow #1, Famous People

Slideshow #2, Examples

It would appear that the first use of a lens in contact with the eye and filled with liquid was by Thomas Young, the British physicist, using this method in 1800 to demonstrate that the cornea was not involved in accommodation of the eye. In 1827 John Herschel, son of Sir William Herschel, discoverer of the planet Uranus, suggested in a footnote  of his treatise Light that severe corneal distortions could be neutralised by the application of a small glass shell filled with animal jelly and held against the eye. There has been little evidence to date that these two events were ever followed up or that Herschel ever tried to correct an eye in the way described but this appears to be the starting point of contact lenses.

 In 1887 a glass shell was blown by F Ad Mϋller Söhne in Wiesbaden, Germany, a firm of artificial eye makers, to protect the eye of a patient who was blind in one eye and had surgically damaged eyelids in the other. This eye was in danger of drying out with consequent pain and loss of vision. The patient was reported to have worn the lens "night and day" for a further 20 years retaining usable vision. Contact lenses made by F Ad Mϋller Söhne (Figure 1) betray their artificial eye roots by having a clear optic section and an opaque scleral section, complete with blood vessels, covering the white of the eye. The firm still exists in Wiesbaden today, one of the few companies that are still making glass artificial eyes but sadly not contact lenses.

The first lenses for the correction of sight arrived around 1888 and have been credited to Adolf Eugen Fick, a German ophthalmologist working in Zurich, Eugene Kalt, a French ophthalmologist working in Paris, and August Mϋller, a medical student in Munchengladbach. Fick and Kalt were trying to correct keratoconus whilst Mϋller was trying to correct his own 14.00 dioptres of myopia. The Mϋller lenses still exist having been discovered by Robert Heitz in the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Blowing glass lenses, as for artificial eyes, produced more comfortable lenses but the vision was very poor and difficult to reproduce. Fick asked Ernst Abbe of Zeiss if he could help. Zeiss initially made ground glass lenses on an experimental basis but from 1911 went into production of fitting sets of very high quality for distribution to ophthalmologists and opticians around the world. Wearing time for these lenses could be 4-5 hours with only some managing longer. Zeiss stopped making contact lenses in the late 1930s.

Adolf Mϋller-Welt, the son of an artificial eye maker in Stuttgart, started working on improvements to contact lenses from 1928. He felt that only a very thin layer of tears should be held under his blown glass, lenses as opposed to the lenses of Zeiss that had a large reservoir of tears beneath the lens. This large fluid layer of the Zeiss lenses helped correct the vision but it also tended to stagnate and cause oedema of the cornea whilst the Mϋller-Welt lenses provided a better tear flow and thus longer wearing times. Mϋller-Welt fitted extensively in Germany throughout the war and also to many American service men in Germany after the war. Later he moved first to Canada and then America, forming the Breger Mϋller Welt Company in Chicago.

Josef Dallos, an ophthalmologist in Budapest, Hungary, became involved with contact lenses also in the late 20's and he developed the taking of a mould from a living eye to produce a lens, publishing his results in 1933. This was a similar technique, using similar materials as used today for dental impressions. He was head hunted by three London ophthalmologists and brought to London in 1937 where, with the firm of Theodore Hamblin, he set up the first contact lens-only practice in the UK.

Theodore Obrig, an optometrist in New York, became very keen on contact lens fitting, discovering the use of fluorescein, combined with UV light, in the fitting of lenses. Obrig founded a contact lens laboratory in 1939 in New York and wrote the first text book on contact lenses in 1942.

Although plastics had been tried with contact lenses previously, it was not until the commercialisation of Perspex by ICI chemists in London in 1932 that a suitable alternative to glass had been found. At the end of the 30s, work had started on plastic contact lenses but this did not really catch on until after the war. There were claims to be first in this by Theodore Obrig and Ernest Mullen in the US, and Istvan Györrfy in Hungary who all succeeded separately at about the same time.

So far all the lenses used were scleral lenses in that they were about 20 or more millimetres in diameter and sat over the white of the eye. Zeiss had tried smaller, corneal lenses in 1912 but without success. In 1948 Kevin Tuohy working with Solon Braff in San Francisco had an accident when making a scleral lens and the scleral part and the optic part separated. He decided to polish up the edges of the smaller section and try the lens in the eye. He found this to be a great advance on scleral lenses and started making lenses approximately 10-11mm in diameter. Although Tuohy gained the US patent for this, Heinrich Wöhlk had a similar experience in 1946 in Germany and had also started making plastic corneal lenses.

At a meeting in London in 1951 three friends, Frank Dickinson from the UK, Wilhelm Söhnges from Germany and Jack Neill from the US discovered they were all working on smaller diameter lenses to allow more oxygen to the cornea. They decided to collaborate and in 1952 launched the Microlens, a corneal lens of only 9.50mm in diameter.  A multitude of different designs with variations of diameter and curvature followed leading to the design of the modern rigid lens.

The first gas permeable lens to arrive on the market was made of CAB, a material often used in screwdriver handles! In 1970 in the US polymer chemist Norman Gaylord, working for optometrist Leonard Seidner patented a rigid gas permeable material which was launched in 1974 as the Polycon lens, providing much higher transmission of oxygen.

 In 1952 Otto Wichterle, a chemist in Prague, Czechoslovakia discovered a new material called HEMA, a water swellable gel initially intended for use as a surgical material. Towards the end of the 50s he tried without success to make soft lenses. His breakthrough came on Christmas afternoon in 1961 when he successfully made a soft lens by spin casting using a home made device built from a construction set powered by a dynamo from his son's bicycle. An early version of this (Figure 2) can be seen at the International Library and Museum of Optometry (ILAMO) in St Louis. A licence to produce these lenses was acquired by the National Patent Development Corporation and by Bausch & Lomb. After much research required by the FDA in the US the SOFLENS was launched in 1971.

The Griffin Naturalens was the first soft lens with a higher water content and was invented by chemist Ken O'Driscoll and optometrist Allan Isen who owned the Frontier Contact Lens Lab in Buffalo, New York. The lens was made by the Griffin Contact Lens Lab in Toronto to avoid the FDA regulations in the US.

Practitioners had seen many cases of poor wearing times for all types of lenses but they had also seen patients who could wear lenses, even glass ones, for several weeks at a time. London optometrist John de Carle reasoned that a lens with higher oxygen transmission must make this a lot easier and safer. Working at home on the kitchen stove he developed a new, higher water content soft lenses for extended wear. Working with Geoff Galley, they founded Global Contact Lenses and refined the material and the fitting technique to produce, in 1971, the Permalens. This was the first lens to be developed specifically for extended wear.

As the spin casting of soft lenses was restricted by a multitude of patents and lath cutting was relatively slow and inconsistent, many workers started looking at cast moulding. Wichterle had already tried this with no success but Tom Shepherd, originally with Hydron and later with ILC, patented a new process. This still had problems, especially with the formation of the edges but Geoff Galley, in the UK, bought the rights to the Shepherd patent and solved the edging problem. Soft lenses could now be produced very accurately and in very large quantities

Through the 70s soft lenses were increasing in market share. There were however problems in disinfecting the lenses and keeping them from becoming contaminated with tear residue. Danish ophthalmologist Michael Bay considered the problem and decided that the best thing to do with the lenses was to throw them away rather than try to clean them. In 1982 he launched the Danalens in Denmark, a lens to be worn overnight for one week then thrown away. These were the first disposable lenses. Johnson & Johnson bought him out, changed the material he was using, refined his unique manufacturing process and added the packaging and marketing from the pharmaceutical industry. The result was Acuvue.

Ron Hamilton, working in the UK, felt that if you could improve the moulding technique even further you could make the lens so well at such a low cost a daily disposable lens could be achieved. He worked in a shed in his back garden with the Award lens being the result. He set up a factory just outside Edinburgh in Scotland and launched daily disposable lenses in early 1995 through Boots Opticians in the UK. J&J launched their 1 Day Acuvue lens to the world later in the same year.

In 1999 both Bausch and Lomb and CIBA Vision both launched Purevision and Night & Day respectively, the first silicone hydrogel materials making 30 night continuous wear a reality. These were the first really major change in soft lens materials in over 40 years being a very clever, complex fusion between the hyrdrogels of Otto Wichterle and the silicon elastomer lenses that was originally proposed in 1956 by Walter Becker a Pittsburgh optometrist.

Types of disposable lenses continue to increase with non-planned replacement soft lenses and rigid lenses now declining in market share. Modalities now available include daily disposable, weekly extended wear, daily wear with discard after two weeks, daily wear with discard after one month and monthly continuous wear. They are available in spherical, aspheric, toric, bifocal, multifocal, UV blocking, tinted and coloured variants. Research and development still continues with contact lenses for overnight vision correction, diabetes and intra ocular pressure monitoring and myopia control.

In 2009 Tim Bowden published Contact Lenses; The Story, the first complete history of the development of contact lenses ranging from the very earliest days of the artificial eye makers to the development silicone hydrogel lenses. It also features background on many of the well known research institutions and leading names in contact lens development. See www.contactlensesthestory.com for further details.

Tim is also a special subject advisor at the Contact Lens Collection at the British Optical Association Museum in London. The museum is open to the public by prior appointment. For more information see www.college-optometrists.org/musEYEum.

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