A new exhibition at Prague’s Academy of Sciences marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Otto Wichterle, the great Czech chemist who invented modern soft contact lenses in the mid 1950s. While a close collaborator later moved to the West, Wichterle stayed in Czechoslovakia, despite being persecuted by the Communists. He never made a cent from his invention, as the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences had sold his patent to a U.S. firm. However, he didn’t mind not profiting personally, says Professor František Rypáček, who knew him.
“I don’t think he was bitter over not having money for himself. Actually the patents were sold to the United States, to the National Patent Development Company, in the late ‘50s or the beginning of the ‘60s – and that was quite correct.
“What was wrong was that in the ’70s, when there were some court trials about the patent rights in the United States and the infringement of patents which had been sold on license, the Academy officials in Czechoslovakia didn’t want to have trouble dealing with foreign agencies or to let Otto Wichterle go to Western countries, because he was persona non grata for the Communist regime, and they therefore sold all the rights to an American company for very small money.
“In that way, the Academy and the Czechoslovak state lost a lot of money that was made afterwards.”
I understand that the co-author of the original paper on the discovery of the polymer used in the manufacture of contact lenses, Drahoslav Lím, emigrated to the United States in the 1970s. Do you know if Otto Wichterle would also have liked to have gone? Did he consider leaving the country? Was that possible?
“He stated many times that he would never leave the country, although he had many invitations, especially in the year 1968 when the Soviet tanks invaded Prague.
“And because he was one of the signatories of the Two Thousand Words manifesto, which was considered one of the contra revolutionary manifestos, he was more in less in danger of being put in prison.
“But he returned from the United States and he stated many times that he belonged here and would not emigrate.”
It must have been a great personal satisfaction to him then when after the revolution he became the head of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences?
“Yes. I think that it was small satisfaction compared to what he actually achieved for the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. Although he never really wanted to have any exceptional position in the Academy, he very much helped in this transition period after 1990.
“Through his personality and his prestige he helped ensure that the Academy turned in the right way and made reforms.”
The exhibition Otto Wichterle in Archive Documents is on in the foyer of the Academy of Science’s main building at Národní 3 in central Prague. It runs until the end of the month.