How Soft Contact Lenses Came to the USA

By Irving Bennett, O.D.

Most readers know that the gel material used in the development of soft contact lenses was developed by Chemistry Professor Otto Wichterle of Prague, Czechoslovakia in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  What many readers do not know is how the patent for the material was transferred to Bausch and Lomb (B&L) in the United States.  Rumor has it that Robert Morrison, OD, pioneer contact lens specialist and optometrist to European royalty (that story must wait for another day), was the one who sold the patent rights for the gel to B&L. Not the case.

Harold Stein, MD of Toronto, Canada, an internationally respected contact lens authority who has written extensively on the “History of Contact Lenses,” noted in a paper recently published in the Academy of Ophthalmic Education that Morrison was “not only an expert in contact lenses, but also he was an innovative, creative and astute observer who was among the first to recognize the importance of hydrogel materials to the development of soft contact lenses.”

Stein wrote on the beginning of Dr. Morrison’s efforts to get a material suitable for a soft contact lens that would absorb water rather than repel it: “While in Czechoslovakia, an optical firm told him (Morrison) about a new type of material that was being developed in Prague,” noted Stein. “He headed to Prague to visit with Chemist Dr. Wichterle who was then perfecting the hydrogel material.  It was initially applied in the manufacturing of an artificial mandible, but Dr. Wichterle soon found that he could spin cast it into a contact lens  He felt it had excellent properties for fitting a contact lens with hydrophilic properties, unlike other contact lens materials at that time which were hydrophobic.” This happened in early 1960s.  Morrison had a number of meetings with the Czech professor who gave him a small sampling of the new product to take back to Harrisburg, PA for testing.

Dr. Morrison worked long and hard in his lab with the sample of the hema gel material; he knew that it was far away from a finished lens for patient use.  He knew, too, that one of the first hurdle was to get the material under a patent.  Dr. Wichterle had promised, or at least inferred, that he (Morrison) would be offered the opportunity to patent the invention.

It was a shock, then, when Morrison got a telephone call shortly after his trip to Prague from Martin Pollock, a patent attorney with National Patent Company.  According to the book “Man of Vision:  The Story of Robert Morrison” by  Rosanne Knorr and Kevin Kremer (published by S.I.S. Publishing, Osprey, FL, 2066) the conversation went like this:

“Pollock said, ‘I understand that Dr. Wichterle is going to assign the patents for his HEMA plastic to you.’ ‘That’s my understanding, yes,’ replied Morrison. ‘Our company, National Patent Development, represents major names in business – Westinghouse, GE – and we are experts on Eastern European patent rights.  I’d like to discuss how we might work with you.’”

The discussions between Morrison and Pollock went absolutely nowhere; there was a real impasse.  Soon Morrison learned that there were others in the USA and some abroad also trying to get involved with Professor Wichterle.  The Professor was “betwixt and between,” not knowing which way to go.

A year or so later, before any agreement was signed with anyone, Dr. Morrison and Dr. Wichterle met at Wichterle’s  home in Prague when Wichterle said, “Robert, I have decided that I must give patent rights to the gel to someone who can use them in the Western Hemisphere and, perhaps, in some other areas as well.”   He then told Dr. Morrison that he was “one of my top choices.”  As was learned later a Mr. Sroneck of Polytechna, representing the Czech Academy of Science, really wanted two groups in on the sale contract in order to prevent a payment default. He said in effect that “in the event payments were not made, they would have two parties to sue!”

This brief report cannot do justice to what legal chicanery was yet to come.  Eventually the actual patents for the soft lens hema gel for the western hemisphere and a few other countries were signed by Robert Morrison and The National Patent Development Corporation – 50:50 – as co-owners of the Flexible Contact Lens Co, formed for this purpose and registered in Delaware. They were “hostile” partners and soon Morrison sued National Patent for millions.  Morrison offered to buy National Patent’s half of the patent rights or he offered National Patent the opportunity to buy his half.  The negotiations that followed were hairy and eventually National Patent agreed to buy the Morrison share.  Getting the money to make the payments was something else; the payment schedule was often “nearly” violated.

It took National Patent a little over six months to make a deal with Bausch and Lomb for it to use the patent.  As it turned out, that deal provided the funds to pay off Robert Morrison.

And, thus, soft contact lenses came to the American marketplace.

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