Wichterle, Otto

Professor Otto Wichterle is Czech inventor and chemist best known for pioneering a centrifugal casting method for the creation of contact lenses. Wichterle was born on October 27, 1913 in Prostejov which is in the Czech Republic. After graduating from high school, he chose to continue his education at the Chemical and Technological Faculty of the Czech Technical University and pursue a career in science. In 1939, Wichterle joined the research institute at Bata’s works in Zlín where he headed the technical aspects of preparing plastics for a variety of advanced uses. He specialized in polyamide and caprolactam. This work lead to the invention of the first Czech synthetic fiber in 1941, which was called silon.

In 1942, when the Nazi regime invaded his homeland, Wichterle was actually imprisoned by the Gestapo for a short time. He returned to the Czech Technical University after World War II to focus on organic chemistry. He was an influential professor at the university on the subject and even wrote a textbook. In 1952, he became dean of a newly built university in Prague called the Institute of Chemical Technology where he patented the use of thinly cross linking hydrogels with his partner Drahoslav Lím. This venture was short lived, as he was ousted from the university after six years by the communist party for his political beliefs. In 1959, one year after his dismissal, Wichterle was named chief of the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. Here he planned to further his study of the polymerization of lactams and his work with Lim. While the university was under construction, Wichterle conducted many early experiments at his home. In 1961, had triumphantly created the first four hydrogel contact lenses. He made these using a contraption he designed and built himself with a children’s building set or Merkur which was similar the Erector set in the U.S. This led to a new possibility for the mass production of contact lenses by implementing the centrifugal casting method. Without Wichterle’s consent or knowledge the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences sold the patent to the United States.

Once again, in 1970, Wichterle was forced to resign his position at the institute because of his political belief. This came as punishment for signing the “Two Thousand Words” proclamation which encouraged democracy over communism. In addition to stripping his of his title and position, the university made it increasingly more difficult for him to conduct his research by alienating him from his foreign contacts and preventing his from getting teaching positions elsewhere. Resolution came 20 long years later when in 1990; he was named president of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. When Czechoslovakia broke apart to form the modern Czech Republic, he was made the honorary president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

In 1993, Wichterle was honored by having asteroid number 3899 named after him and again in 2006, when a high school in Ostrava in the Czech Republic was also named after him.

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