A Short History of Contact Lenses

 

Isn’t it something of an everyday miracle – pop a tiny little lens in your eye and suddenly, 20-20 vision! For many of us, contact lenses are a lifesaver, but did you ever think how they might have come about?

In 1508 Leonardo da Vinci recorded the idea that the optics of the human eye could be altered by submerging the cornea in a bowl of water in his work Codex of the Eye. Later, in 1636, after reviewing Leonardo’s work, the French scientist Descartes wrote an essay in which he discussed placing a glass tube filled with liquid in direct contact with the cornea to improve eyesight. These ideas, while visionary (do you see what I did there?) were sadly impractical and no significant advances were made for almost two hundred years.

In 1801 Thomas Young made ground-breaking advances in describing astigmatism, and also, the very bold move of gluing water-filled glass tubes to his eyes with wax, building on Descartes’ work. Unsurprisingly this didn’t catch on and it wasn’t until 1845 that another British scientist, John Herschel came up with the idea of casting a mould of an individual cornea and making corrective lenses for that eye. No-one could quite come up with a way of doing that until over 50 years later, when within a year of each other a German false-eye manufacturer called Mueller and a Swiss physician called Flick both made prototypes of glass lenses which fitted over the entire white of the eye. While huge steps forward, these lenses were heavy, uncomfortable and essentially ‘suffocated’ the eye of oxygen so could be tolerated for a few hours at most.

The Americans took over in the 1900s with Feinbloom combining the glass lenses that sat on the cornea with a plastic surround which was more permeable and therefore more comfortable. (This was possible because of advances made by the Hungarian Dr Dallos who had worked on Herschel’s theory of mould-casting and perfected a method of doing so.) Later Kevin Touhy, in a happy accident, broke off the plastic surround of his lens and discovered that his vision was still corrected by using only the part that sat on his cornea. This meant the white of the eye could be left to breathe and so lenses could be tolerated for longer.

After this breakthrough the advances in lens technology came thick and fast: Leonardo’s insistence on the importance of water was borne out by the invention of the hydrogel lens: In 1958 Czech chemist Wichterle, together with his colleague Lim, created the first ‘soft’ lenses that were permeable, pliable and much thinner than glass lenses.

By the 1970s and 80s lenses were becoming more comfortable and could be worn for much longer periods. Today of course we have disposable lenses and even lenses that can be worn overnight or for weeks at a time, with better oxygen permeability and water content, making them a safe, comfortable and convenient option for many people.

Why not come and have a chat with one of our knowledgeable team to find out which type of contact lens may be best for you!