Contact lens inventor Otto Wichterle was born 90 years ago

Last week, Czech academics marked the 90th anniversary of the birth of the outstanding Czech scientist and legendary inventor of the contact lens and the synthetic fibre "silon", Professor Otto Wichterle, who died five years ago. Those who had a chance to meet him, his former students and colleagues remember Otto Wichterle not only for his achievements in science and research but also for his exceptional personality.

Helena Illnerova is the chairwoman of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

"My memories are that he was a very kind man with a very good sense of humour. I would consider it real English humour. He was very modest. This is the most important thing about him. Of course, I remember his textbooks. His textbooks of inorganic chemistry, of organic chemistry were so modern that nobody at that time at any other university in the former Czechoslovakia was able to write such a modern book as Professor Wichterle was able to do."

Otto Wichterle was born on the 27th of October 1913 in the Moravian town of Prost"jov to the family of a co-owner of a successful farm-machinery plant. However, young Otto chose science for his career. After graduation he stayed on at the university and in 1939 he submitted his second doctorate thesis on chemistry, but the wartime Protectorate regime blocked any further activity at the university. Otto Wichterle was able to continue in his scientific work, however, by joining the research institute at the Bata works in Zlin, where he also taught those who could not study after the German occupants closed all Czech institutes of higher education.

After the war, Otto Wichterle was appointed professor of macromolecular chemistry at the Czech Technical University. In 1952 he was made a corresponding member of the newly constituted Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and earlier that year he had been made dean at one of the faculties of the newly established University of Chemical Technology. Universities were under a great deal of scrutiny at that time, however, and during one political purge in 1958, Otto Wichterle was expelled from the university. The Academy and the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry, which was established largely thanks to his efforts, became the centre for Otto Wichterle's work. There he continued in his research into the use of hydrogels, which later gave birth to the first gel contact lenses in 1961. Because of his open activities during 1968 and particularly after the August Soviet-led occupation, the "normalisation" regime punished Otto Wichterle by removing him from his executive positions and by gradually making his research work more difficult. The head of the Czech Academy of Sciences Helena Illnerova remembers Otto Wichterle as a very anti-ideological person who never bowed down before any regime.

"I think he never was a member of any political party and I think his only goal was just to help things to improve and he never bent under any regime. And I think that is the most important thing."

After the fall of communism, Otto Wichterle was appointed President of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences at the age of 76. He died in August, 1998. Last week, a foundation stone to Otto Wichterle's memorial was laid in front of the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry in Prague, where the legendary Czech inventor spent many years working.

If you are based in the Czech Republic, we'd like to remind you once again that this week you have a unique chance to visit most of the institutes and research centres of the Czech Academy of Sciences - including Otto Wichterle's Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry in Prague - as part of the Week of Science and Technology. On top of that you can visit lectures, round tables and exhibitions organised by the Czech Academy of Sciences. For more information, look at the Academy's website, www.cas.cz