It is true that the weaklings sometimes become the strongest and the most successful of all. Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison are just a few examples and now you can add to them the unbelievable story of Otto Wichterle – the inventor of soft contact lenses.
Otto was born into a well-to-do family but his life almost ended at the age of 6 when he fell into a sewage dump. The doctor gave him no longer than a year to live since he suffered with terrible fevers ever since. But his little body fought hard and he got better every day. His teacher began coming to the house to home school him so he would not get behind with his studies. When was Otto ready to leave his bed and get back into the real world (he was 9 years old) the principal tested his knowledge and became astonished how much he knew! He put him straight into 5th grade which was a blessing and a curse. He was the smartest boy there but also the smallest and two years younger than everyone else. He had no friends and kids were constantly making fun of him.
Not having anyone to hang out with after school, Otto found his new love in playing tennis. He became so good that he was put on the mens’ tennis team. That in turn gave him enough confidence to pay attention to his studies, especially mathematics and physics. Otto graduated high school with flying colors and in 1931 began his lifelong quest of studying chemistry at the Prague university.
Wichterle was going to stay in the academic world as a researcher and a professor but in 1939 the Nazis closed all the universities and he ended up on the street with no job. Thankfully he was able to join the chemistry team at Bata’s shoe factory where he led the preparation of plastics. In 1941 Wichterle’s team invented the first Czechoslovak synthetic fiber under the name silon.
After the war Wichterle taught chemistry at the university again and became the dean of the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague and began solving the case of soft contact lenses. Together with his colleague Drahoslav Lim he succeeded in preparing a cross-linking gel that absorbed up to 40% of water, was transparent and could come in permanent contact with living tissues. They named this wonder-material Poly(2-hydroxyethyl methacrylate) or pHEMA. At the beginning the lenses did not work so well because the edges split and tore. But before the team could find any other way, the research center was closed. The Ministry of Health did not think the results were sufficient enough, although Otto was really trying hard to persuade them otherwise.
Wichterle did not give up and brought his passion home. He made a home-made apparatus built using a children’s building kit MERKUR, a bicycle dynamo and a bell transformer, thus inventing a new way of manufacturing the lenses using a centrifugal casting procedure. In the first four months Otto and his wife Linda made 5,500 lenses!! The patent was later sold to the US (which I don’t get because it was during the Cold War) where mass production really took off.
In 1970 he was expelled from the institute by the Communists because he signed an anti-communist manifesto called “The Two Thousand Words”. His research was put to halt again until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. After that he got many honorary positions such as becoming the president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and received honorary doctorates from several domestic and foreign universities. And finally asteroid number 3899 was named after him in 1993.