Oregon Contact Lens Museum preserves the story of an ‘incredible treasure’

The modern contact lens is celebrating its 50th anniversary in the United States this year, and what better way to mark the occasion than a trip to the one and only in the world Contact lens museum in Forest Grove?

Located in a 250 square foot storefront in a shopping mall, the museum is tiny but large enough to display some 2,000 artifacts documenting the history of the contact lens.

Co-curator of the museum Patrick Caroline, who is the director of nearby contact lens research University of the Pacific College of Optometry, began collecting pieces of contact lens history about 40 years ago. Between Caroline’s collection and gifts from optometrists all the way to Australia and India, there were enough items to open the Contact Lens Museum in 2019.

The collection includes rare pieces that would make any lover of ophthalmology drool:

There is a set of the first commercially available soft contact lenses, 1966 SPOFAs from Czechoslovakia.

The actual set of tools used by Dennis C. England, aka the father of the contact lens, to cut the very first contact lenses.

A set of diagnostic glass lenses belonging to Dr Ida Mann, the first woman to be appointed professor at the University of Oxford.

And Caroline’s most treasured artifact: what is believed to be the world’s latest fully functional glass contact lens manufacturing device.

That sort of thing might not mean much to the layman, and unsurprisingly, most museum visitors work in the eye care industry. But Caroline’s passionate and personalized museum tours are enough to make humble contact lenses think twice.

“Contact lenses are these little miracles that we put on patients, and it literally changes their lives,” Caroline said. “I can hold one of these lenses on my finger and just know that the second I put it on their life has changed. It is an incredibly rewarding thing to experience, and doing this every day for the patients is the greatest joy anyone can have.

Caroline developed an early interest in optometry after her own challenges in eye care. He was born without a retina in his left eye, causing his left cornea to rotate outward.

“I just fell in love with the eye care field,” Caroline said, “and being a one-eyed person it kind of took a toll on me because it made me really appreciate what vision is.

While modern wearers may view contact lenses as an invention for cosmetics or convenience, the first contact lenses were developed out of medical necessity.

“There are a lot of eye conditions that cannot be optimally corrected with glasses,” Caroline said. “Probably 95% of the patients we see at Pacific University College of Optometry are patients with medically necessary contact lenses, so the only way to see anything is to use specially designed contact lenses.

Still today, one of the most common eye diseases treated with contact lenses is keratoconus, in which the cornea thins and moves outward from the eye.

The history of the contact lens dates back to 1887, when four people – in Switzerland, France, and two in Germany – all developed the concept at around the same time.

“The people who experimented with these first lenses in the late 1800s, the designs they developed around that time are almost identical to the designs we still use today,” Caroline said.

What has changed in the last century are the materials.

Patrick Caroline holds in his hand a glass contact lens, circa 1930s, and a modern soft contact lens.Samantha Swindler / The Oregonian

Until around 1940, contact lenses were made of glass and fitted over the entire exposed white part of the eye, called the sclera. Scleral lenses are about 22-24mm in diameter, compared to the usual 8mm diameter for contacts today.

Equipping yourself with these glass lenses was not easy. A mold was taken from a patient’s eye by injecting a hardening compound directly onto the eyeball. From there, a brass casting was made, which was pressed into a sheet of heated glass to form the lens.

“Watching some of the early videos of applying and removing is pretty amazing,” Caroline said. “What people are going to do to see is really amazing to me.”

Glass lenses could only be worn for a few hours because the lenses prevented oxygen from reaching the eye. If left in place for an extended period of time, the cornea would become cloudy and develop an ulcer, which would ultimately lead to permanent blindness.

“The gift of sight is such a precious thing, that even though they could only get four hours of wear time, those four hours were incredibly valuable to these patients,” said Caroline.

After World War II, glass lenses gave way to rigid plastic lenses. These lenses were light enough that now the smaller lenses can be made to rest only on the cornea. The contact lens allowed oxygen to reach the eye and could be worn for longer.

“It was really after WWII that people started to use them more and more for cosmetic reasons – actors, actresses, politicians who didn’t want to be seen with glasses,” Caroline said.

Chemist Otto Wichterle made the first modern contact lens in 1961 using a molding device he built from his son’s Erector set.

“It was sort of the humble start of what ended up being a multi-billion dollar-per-year industry,” Caroline said.

The first modern contact lenses received FDA approval in the United States in 1971, and over the past 50 years, contacts have become ubiquitous in eye care. In the 1970s, a single soft lens cost around $ 39. Today, disposable lenses can be made for 50 cents a piece.

“For us as eye care practitioners and for patients, contact lenses have simply been this incredible treasure for all of us, and it’s always important to preserve its history,” said Caroline. “It’s important that we have something to think about to see how far we’ve come and how brilliant the people before us have been.”

If the thought of wearing contact lenses makes you squeamish, you’re not alone.

Caroline – who is a board member of the International Society for Contact Lens Research, is an editor for the Contact Lens Spectrum and has dedicated her life to finding and fitting patients with contact lenses. life changing contact – wear glasses.

“I’ve never worn them,” he said, acknowledging the irony. “I’m one of those people who are a little… I don’t want to get confused, and yet I have dedicated my life to the profession.

“Don’t ask me to explain the insanity of this, but it is.”


Address: The Contact Lens Museum is located at 2309 Pacific Ave. in Forest Grove.

Hours: Open only by appointment between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday to Friday. To book a tour, call 504-730-8794 or submit a request online at thecontactlensmuseum.org.

Admission: Release. The museum depends solely on donations, which are tax deductible.

– Samantha Swindler, [email protected], @editorswindler

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