ROCHESTER, N.Y.—More or less taken for granted today, the soft contact lens has a storied history and a fascinating backstory on its road to discovery and mass production. This story is getting attention today—or at least more attention—because it is the 50th anniversary of Bausch + Lomb’s introduction of SofLens in 1971.

Bausch + Lomb introduced SofLens as the first mass-produced soft contact in the U.S. market shortly after the Food and Drug Administration had granted its approval of the novel device. This breakthrough and the many follow-on innovations have led to a $15 billion a year contact lens market today.

Historians believe the concept of a contact lens to improve vision actually dates to the early 1500s and the inventor Leonardo da Vinci, who illustrated the concept. But it took another 300 years before British astronomer Sir John Herschel conceptualized practical lens design. The first contact lens, manufactured from glass and fitted to cover the entire eye, dates to the late 1880s, according to the Contact Lens Manufacturers Association.

The inventor of what became the B+L soft contact also has quite a winding story behind his invention.

George Grobe

Otto Wichterle (1913-1998), a chemist working in what today is the Czech Republic, became interested and inspired to develop hydrogel materials in the early 1950s after a train journey in which he noticed a passenger reading an ophthalmological journal with information about a prosthetic eye. This led to an idea for a new softer hydrogel material better suited to lenses, but among the challenges was the issue of manufacturing precise shapes with non-irritating edges.

Much of his materials work took place in the late 1950s, and during this time Wichterle worked without support from the government or his university, according to Bausch + Lomb’s George Grobe, a vice president of R&D, global vision care. (Wichterle, known to some as the “Wizard of Prague,” worked with a colleague Drahoslav Lim and the two co-wrote an article for Nature in 1960 that predicted the invention and eventual use of a hydrogel material to replace the vitreous humor of the eye, according to London-based The College of Optometrists’ website.)

“Wichterle was an exceptional scientist who did most of the work in his own home, which was actually his apartment,” Grobe said, noting that the scientist used his son’s erector set (or a 1950s version of it) and a family phonograph in the development process, which involved spinning the hydrogel material into a lens. Wichterle subsequently ended up leading the National Academy of Science under then-president Václav Havel, Grobe said, and he was eventually recognized for the exceptional scientist that he was.

Wichterle is credited with inventing a new way of manufacturing lenses using a centrifugal casting procedure, and he received a patent for this process. Using his rudimentary manufacturing process, he was able to produce more than 5,000 lenses in 1962.

His invention was subsequently taken away because he was working in what was a communist country. The National Patent Development Corporation (NPDC) in 1965 bought the American rights to produce the soft lenses and then sublicensed the rights to Bausch + Lomb. But it was still a winding journey to gain the marketing approval necessary in the U.S.

At the time, and as continues today with the FDA, a sponsor company such as B+L has to present sufficient evidence and research showing the safety and efficacy of this new device. “It was a completely new device, and typically any time you have a completely new device the FDA takes a considerable amount of time and they want a considerable amount of clinical data,” Grobe noted in an interview with VMAIL Weekend. “You have to be able to demonstrate that it is safe and effective in a large clinical study with patients. We had to do that.”

The early comparisons to existing hard lenses found the new lens more comfortable and easier to use than existing lenses, with about an equivalent product lifespan, Grobe said.

“What [the FDA approval] initially did was to change the access and the availability of this type of vision correction to both ECPs and patients,” Grobe said. “And this fulfilled [founders] Bausch and Lomb’s original dream, which was to help people see better and to live better by providing the access and availability of vision correction.”

Hundreds of millions of people have benefitted greatly from this type of vision correction in the 50 years since the soft contact lens debuted, he added. “This single invention enabled a whole series of other inventions that are in wide use today in our industry and that we look at today as common, but they were completely unknown in 1971,” he added.