October 18, 2022
It was on October 18, 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson did something on live TV which benefitted the optically challenged: he wore contact lenses.
Now, for those of you who do not need corrective lenses and have never had to struggle with fogged up or rained on glasses or have never found yourself patting around your nightstand looked for spectacles, the then President of the United States wearing contact lenses might seem like a nothing burger.
But I, like hundreds of millions of people, do rely on devices to provide vision correction and contact lenses are a wonderful invention which has changed, literally, the way we see life.
The idea of being able to correct vision by placing an artificial lens on the eye can be traced back to 1508 when Leonardo da Vinci illustrated his concept in Codex of the eye, Manual D. It was unworkable. Other inventors also tried over the next few centuries.
Workable contact lenses made their way into use gradually. Thanks to the Infallible Wikipedia we learn the following:
“Although Louis J. Girard invented a scleral contact lens in 1887, it was German ophthalmologist Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick who in 1888 fabricated the first successful afocal scleral contact lens. Approximately 18–21 mm (0.71–0.83 in) in diameter, the heavy blown-glass shells rested on the less sensitive rim of tissue surrounding the cornea and floated on a dextrose solution. He experimented with fitting the lenses initially on rabbits, then on himself, and lastly on a small group of volunteers, publishing his work, ‘Contactbrille’, in the March 1888 edition of Archiv für Augenheilkunde. Large and unwieldy, Fick’s lens could be worn only for a couple of hours at a time. August Müller of Kiel, Germany, corrected his own severe myopia with a more convenient blown-glass scleral contact lens of his own manufacture in 1888.
The development of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) in the 1930s paved the way for the manufacture of plastic scleral lenses. In 1936, optometrist William Feinbloom introduced a hybrid lens composed of glass and plastic, and in 1937 it was reported that some 3,000 Americans were already wearing contact lenses. In 1939, Hungarian ophthalmologist Dr.István Györffy produced the first fully plastic contact lens. The following year, German optometrist Heinrich Wöhlk produced his own version of plastic lenses based on experiments performed during the 1930s.”
Contact lenses were, however, expensive and only the wealthy could afford them.
That started to change in the 1960’s but even then one needed to purchase contact lens insurance in order to replace lost or broken lenses (which happened all the time!)
The next breakthrough in technology – which was twofold – was the development of rigid gas permeable lenses and of soft contact lenses. Both allowed oxygen to pass through the lenses making it possible to keep the lenses on their eyes for longer periods of time. Some soft contact lenses can be worn up to 30 consecutive days.
As we’ve come to expect from the Infallible Wikipedia, there is exhaustive and detailed information regarding this topic. A link is provided below.
When I entered fifth grade it was discovered, due to the fact that my teacher, Miss Crosslin, kept the lights turned off in her classroom a great deal of the time. I couldn’t read the blackboard. Soon visits to the eye doctor commenced and a prescription was written for glasses.
For a gangly pre-pubescent girl, having to get ugly glasses was a disaster. I HATED wearing glasses. I had to endure it for two full years until, thanks to my older sister, I became aware of the miracle known as contact lenses.
Then the lobbying began. My sister had been relentless in convincing our mother that she needed contacts, finally getting them while in eighth grade.
The summer between my seventh and eighth grade year, I too was allowed to join the contact lens wearing community.
Which sounds much simpler than it was. In those days you had to ‘train’ your eyes to wear them, only being allowed certain amounts of time each day.
The very first day it was a whopping… fifteen minutes.
But I was determined to be done with glasses. All that summer I dutifully followed everything the eye doc told me to do. Fifteen minutes for week one, then twenty minutes for week two, then 30 minutes, then an hour. On and on it went until I was finally able to wear them for most of the day.
It truly was a miracle. But not without problems. The lenses didn’t fit particularly well and had an annoying propensity to pop out of my eye. I refer you back to the contact lens insurance thing. Yes, I had that. But even so, those little pieces of plastic were treated like gold.
A lost contact prompted getting down on hands and knees and scouring all surfaces in search of the errant lens.
The year I was 19 was particularly bad for lost lenses. I was traveling with the Rainbow Girls that year and I can’t recall how many times I seemed to lose a contact in my car while driving. I even had to have another girl drive me home one day when I couldn’t find the lost lens. I did unearth it later but a misplaced contact meant having to buy a new one. It was a pain.
But I didn’t care. Being able to wear contacts was always preferable to the alternative.
With the advent of Lasik, contact lens wearers had a new choice which allowed them to get out of their contacts altogether. For me, I have stayed old school, and still wear contacts. I figure I will wear them until the day arrives when I need to have cataract lens replacement.
The advancements in technology have made it so that the gas permeable lenses – for those of us who still wear them –stay in the eye and don’t pop out. Looking for a lost lens is a rare event these days.
But I kind of miss the thrill of hunting for something clear, thin, and ½ inch in diameter all while being blind in one eye. How else can I get in my calisthenics work out each day?