Birthplace: Prostějov, Czech Republic
Location of death: Straisko, Czech Republic
Cause of death: Natural Causes
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Chemist, Inventor, Activist
Executive summary: Invented soft contact lenses
Otto Wichterle was a Czech chemist, born in 1913 in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire, which soon became Czechoslovakia. After earning his doctorate in chemistry, he taught at the Technical University in Prague, but he was barred from teaching when Czechoslovakia came under German control in 1939. He then worked in the research department of the Bata Shoe Company. He was imprisoned by German authorities in 1942, who suspected that he had suppressed some of his laboratory's findings to prevent the Germans from exploiting his science in warfare. The Nazis were right -- Wichterle had invented silon, a synthetic fiber very similar to nylon but developed independently, which became as common on the communist side of the Iron Curtain as nylon in the West.
After the war he taught at the Institute of Chemical Technology, but in 1958 he was abruptly dismissed after being deemed "politically unreliable" by Communist Party officials. Prior to his firing, Wichterle had been working with hydrogel poly-hydroxyethyl methacrylate, or HEMA, a new plastic that could absorb and retain moisture, which he thought might make better contact lenses. At the time, contact lenses were made of glass or hard plastic, expensive to make and uncomfortable to wear. With a sudden surplus of free time but no funding, Wichterle (who wore glasses) began tinkering with HEMA in his kitchen. Using a motor scavenged from an old phonograph player, parts from a bicycle, and a child's erector set, he developed the basics of the spin-casting process now used to create soft contact lenses. After Wichterle published a report on his work in the science journal Nature in 1960, the Czechoslovak Government sold all rights to an American entrepreneur for $330,000, and under Czech law Wichterle received 1/10 of 1% of that payment -- about $330. Soft contact lenses were introduced by Bausch & Lomb in 1971, and are now worn by about 100,000,000 people worldwide.
In the liberal "Prague Spring" movement of 1968, Wichterle was one of several co-signers of a pamphlet criticizing the communist government and calling for democratization, and after Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia he was barred from teaching and most international scientific communications. Twenty years later he was active in the non-violent "Velvet Revolution" of 1989, and after the communist government was toppled Wichterle was elected President of the Czechoslovak Academy of Science in 1989. When Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993's "Velvet Divorce", he was elected the first President of the Academy of the Czech Republic. He died in 1998.
Wife: Lidia Wichterle (physician)
Son: Ivan Wichterle
Son: Karil Wichterle
High School: Prostějov High Technical School, Prostějov, Czech Republic
University: PhD Chemistry, Prague Institute of Chemical Technology Engineering (1936)
Teacher: Chemistry, Prague Institute of Chemical Technology Engineering (1936-39, 1945-49)
Professor: Chemistry, Prague Institute of Chemical Technology Engineering (1949-58)
Professor: Chemistry, Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry (1961-69, 1971-96)
National Inventors Hall of Fame 2007 (posthumous)
Academy of the Czech Republic President (1993-94)
Czechoslovak Academy of Science President (1989-92)
Asteroid Namesake 3899 Wichterle
Author of books:
Vzpomínky (Recollections) (1992)
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