Famous Czechs - Otto Wichterle
MessageOtto Wichterle (1913-1998)
Professor Otto Wichterle, the inventor of the modern contact lens, was born in Prostejov, Northern Moravia. He worked on his diploma thesis at the Prague Institute of Chemical Technology Engineering in 1935 under the supervision of Professor Emil Votocek, and received his doctorate in 1936. He then worked as an assistant to Professor Votocek until the closure of the Czech universities by the Nazis in November 1939.
During the war he worked in a research institute in Zlin, Northern Moravia, where he led a working team studying polyamides. He developed a technology for the manufacture of caprolactam. He made his first laboratory-scale polyamide fibres, which were suitable for spinning, as early as 1941. Industrial manufacture of these polyamides under the trademark Silon was not launched to until ten years later, due first to the concealment of the invention from the German occupiers, and later due to the problems of post-war industry.Wichterle returned to the Institute of Chemical Technology Engineering in 1945 to complete his second doctorate in organic chemistry, and began to lecture on general and inorganic chemistry. He wrote an inorganic chemistry textbook whose concept was ahead of its time. He also kept in contact with organic chemistry teaching, and wrote a German and Czech organic chemistry textbook. In 1949 he expanded his second doctorate with the technology of plastics and devoted himself fully to the establishment of a new department of plastics technology, and became its head and first Professor in the same year. From 1952 he devoted himself to studying of the synthesis of cross-linking hydrophilous gels, which expanded their volume in water, with the aim of finding a material suitable for eye implants. He succeeded in preparing a cross-linking gel which absorbed up to 40% of water, exhibited suitable mechanical properties and was transparent. However, Wichterle and other prominent teachers had to leave the Institute of Chemical Technology after a political purge staged by its Communist leadership 1958. Research into contact eye lenses at the Institute of Chemical Technology came to an end.The International Symposium on Macromolecular Chemistry held in Prague in 1957 convinced the state leadership of the need to establish a centre for research into synthetic polymers. The Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences came into being in 1958, with Professor Wichterle appointed its director. Since the institute's building was under construction at that time, Professor Wichterle conducted the decisive experiments to transform hydrogels into a suitable shape of a contact lens at his own home. At Christmas 1961 he used a children's construction set to assemble the first prototype of a centrifugal casting device driven by a bicycle dynamo which was connected to a bell transformer. In this way he cast his first four lenses that did not irritate the eye. The dream of a remedy for vision defects, first described by Leonardo da Vinci in 1508 and which Professor Otto Wichterle brought to life, spread all over the world within a few years. Some 100,000,000 people in the world now use contact lenses, which are quick and easy to apply.In 1990, soon after the 1989 political changes in Eastern Europe, Professor Wichterle, member of numerous international societies and the holder of many international awards and honorary doctorates at foreign university, was elected chairman of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, and he held this post until the split of the country in 1993.
In 1993, the name Wichterle was given to one of the planetoids of our solar system.
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