OTTO WICHTERLE Biography - Pioneers, Explorers & inventors


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Name: Otto Wichterle                                                                   
Born: 27 October 1913                                                                   
Otto Wichterle (27 October 1913 in Prostějov in Austria-Hungary, now in the           
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 Baťa's works in Zlín and continue his         
scientific work. There he led 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 imprisoned by the Gestapo in           
1942 but was released 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 Sciences (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, together with Drahoslav Lím. 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 (Merkur). 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 "Two Thousand 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 Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences till the dissolution of Czechoslovakia         
and was the honorary president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic         
after that.                                                                             
The asteroid number 3899 was named after Wichterle in 1993. Furthermore, a high         
school in Ostrava (in the district of Poruba) in the Czech Republic was named           
after him in September 1, 2006.