The History of Contact Lenses

If you think that Contact Lenses only came about in recent years, due to advancements and developments in medicine and technology, then you are mistaken. Very few people know that the contact lens was first conceptualized during the renaissance, when noted inventor, painter and visionary, Leonardo Da Vinci. In the 1508, Da Vinci penned Codex of the Eye, Manual D, where he discussed the basic principle of contact lenses. In this manual, Da Vinci proposes that submerging the eye in a bowl of water would have an effect on one’s vision. However, his ideas were not geared towards correcting impaired vision.

The next breakthrough in contact lenses came only after over a century, when Rene Descartes, in 1636 proposed that a liquid-filled glass-tube be placed directly over the cornea to improve one’s vision. This theory, was discarded because, it was physically impossible to put into practice. Several other scientists have proposed methods by which mechanisms of accommodations can be fitted in one’s eyes.Thomas Young, in 1801, constructed an “eyecup”, a device which is similar in appearance to modern-day contact lenses; and in 1845 Sir John Herschel proposed two ideas: one involving filling a spherical glass capsule with animal jelly; and another creating a mould of the cornea; for correcting impaired vision. These were published as a footnote in the Encyclopedia Metropolitana.

The biggest breakthrough in the elusive quest for the perfect eye-piece, however, came in 1887, when Adolf Eugen Fich, a German physiologist, was able to successfully construct and fit a pair of contact lenses. He initially fitted these afocal scleral contact shells made of heavy brown glass on eyes of rabbits, then on himself, and finally on a group of volunteers. His work and findings were published in 1888.

Despite having developed the first usable set of contact lenses, fellow German, August Müller can be credited for creating contact lenses that were more convenient and comfortable to use. Müller, in 1888, created a glass-blown cleral lens that, unlike Fick’s, were smaller and could be worn for longer periods of time. Müller’s glass-blown lenses were used widely as contact lenses until the polymethyl methacrylate, also known as PMMA or Plexiglass, was developed in the 1930s. Optometrist Dr. William Feinbloom is credited to introducing plastic lenses in 1936.These lenses, made with a combination of plastic and glass, were lighter and easier to use.

The first true “corneal” lenses were introduced in the 1950s. These were smaller than scleral lenses and, as the name implies, rested on the cornea instead of covering the entire ocular surface. Since then, advancements in science and technology saw the rapid development in contact lenses. The 1960’s saw the use of PMMA corneal lenses. The next three decades ushered in a wide range of oxygen-permeable materials that allows air to circulate between the eye and the lens. Silicon hydrogels were introduced in 1999, and these made lenses more durable and more comfortable to use.

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