Soft contact lenses came in during the 1960s though they did not suit every wearer. Indeed, in the very early days there were significant problems. Some of the early developments took place in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe and new ideas were not necessarily transmitted quickly or accepted readily.
1960 Otto Wichterle in Czechoslovakia (from 1952) together with Lim experimented with soft lenses.
1961 Wichterle produced the first wearable soft lens at the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry in Prague. The first country outside of Czechoslovakia to obtain a supply of these hydrophilic lenses was New Zealand, to which some examples were apparently smuggled out in 1964. Some samples and a set of instructions were also sent, legitimately, to Harry Green in London in October that year.
1965 The world’s first soft lens conference was held in Prague. Many of the early problems with the material were sorted out.
British practitioners could obtain Czechoslovakian gel-lenses in the mid-late 1960s via the Merkuria Foreign Trade Corporation.
1967 F. A. Burnett-Hodd FBOA told the Contact Lens Society that there were an estimated 5.7 million lens wearers in the UK (nearly 10% of the population).
The Frank Dickinson Collection includes a 'Bionite NATURALENS' case in the fom of a transparent plastic cylinder with a tight plastic pull-off lid and a removable white plastic base. This was designed for upright storage of the lens overnight and the minimum amount of storage fluid required was marked by a blue line. Note the instructions emphasising the importance of rinsing the case and replacing the solution daily. Unfamiliar to most UK contact lens opticians who have seen it, it is possible that Dickinson picked it up on his travels abroad and that this type of case was never made available in England.
By the early 1970s the contact lens industry was in a state of transition. No longer confined to small producers, there was an element of 'big business' creeping in, with suppliers hoping to tap vast markets. Their primary commercial target was an increasingly affluent young generation, whom it was hoped would not only buy contact lenses for occasional use but for what was termed 'extended wear'. Contact lenses were available for all sorts of complicated conditions, but they were generally no longer required for correcting aphakia due to the availability of surgically implanted intra-ocular lenses (IOLs). It was envisaged that in future the majority of contact lenses would be prescribed for relatively low myopia corrections.
The salesmen and the practitioners did not necessarily share the same vision just yet, however:
1972 The Association of Contact Lens Practitioners held a major soft lenses symposium. Our museum archive contains a handout from that conference. It is from a lecture concerning the Hydrolite Soft Plastic material. All the cases mentioned had previously been failures when conventional (i.e. hard) contact lenses were prescribed. The conclusion of the speaker, Robert Turner, was that hydrophilic lenses now constituted a 'second line of defence', but for use only when conventional lenses have failed.
HEMA - 2-hydroxyethyl metacrylate. A transparent hydrophilic plastic lens material.
Hydrophilic - A quality of a soft lens which transmits a certain amount of oxygen and may have varying water content. Lenses with a very high water content are for extended wear ('EW').
Soft contact lenses can be:
1970 John de Carle and Galley started work on the ‘Permalens’, the first extended wear lens.
These are second generation Permalens lenses, still being produced at the time by the original maker, Global Vision. The blue labels denote negative power lenses and there were red labels for positive lenses. Later on 'Permalens' lenses were produced in their turn by Barnes-Hind / Cooper / CIBA. The changes in ownership of certain brand names can be one of the most complicated parts of tracing their history.
1971 - The Soflens by Bausch & Lomb was the first soft contact lens to be approved for supply in the United States.
1974 Titmus Eurocon introduced the first cosmetic soft contact lens with either a printed or a hand-painted iris. The same year their Weicon Soft Toric lens introduced the concept of dynamic stabilisation.
1977 To the left are the original Hydrocurve design of soft lens. Notably the label says that they were for 'extended wear'. The Hydrocurve bifocal introduced by Barnes-Hind in 1977 was the first aspheric soft bifocal lens.
1978 Toric contact lenses were made available.
To the far right is the second generation Hydron lens (the originals had metal caps). The screw-lid jar is a typical Smith & Nephew container and may be compared with, for example, their 'Snoflex' range.
1978 Syntex produced the first non-HEMA material soft lens, known as the CSI.
1980 Tinted daily wear soft lenses were made available.
1981 Extended wear soft lenses were made available. There were dangerous problems which would arise with these such as a risk of ulcerative corneal complications from improperly sterilised lenses, though these problems went largely unnoticed at first until large-scale clinical studies revealed the worrying pattern.
1982 Bifocal daily wear soft lenses made available.
1988 Cosmetic coloured lenses made available.
This pack of 'Choice A.B.' soft lenses (pictured left) contains a customer information card to the effect that the box contains easier to open blister packs, introduced by customer demand. In fact blister packs were a natural progression, saving considerable weight as disposability led to a significant increase in the numbers of lenses supplied in one go. 'Choice' was a hydrophilic disposable soft lens (45% methafilcon) with a light blue tint. Like many of the samples in the BOA Museum, this is a diagnostic pack, designed to help the practitioner fit the correct lens before dispensing them to the patient.
1999 New generation extended wear soft lenses were introduced.
'Soflens 66' was a popular spherical prescription lens, manufactured by Bausch & Lomb in Waterford, Ireland. This set of three sterile blister packs (pictured left) dates from circa 2000. This monthly disposable lens was still available, though differently packaged, at the time of writing (2008).
Extreme H20 Lenses (pictured on the bottom left) came from America (c.2000) and were promoted as 'The contact lens that will not dry on the eye'. Note their presence within a retail display box which would originally have contained 12 lenses. The museum also collects this in-practice promotional material.
Today soft lenses remain the normal type of contact lens that optometrists will prescribe. Pretty well most refractive conditions can be corrected with soft contact lenses. There are even special soft lenses to correct problems caused by unsuccessful laser eye surgery. Manufacturers vie with each other to claim greater levels of comfort, stability and lightness of weight.
Here is a brand new soft toric contact lens in its sterile saline-filled blister pack. This pack is a relatively plain shape; others come with rounded edges or even in the shape of tear-drops. Note the list of ingredients including the water content of the lens material (57%), the European CE mark of approval, the dimensions (dia = diameter, BC = back curve) in millimetres and the optical power in dioptres (-2.50 D with a small amount of cylindrical power too to combat astigmatism). 'Rx only' means that the lens is only to be supplied on prescription. There is also a written warning that the lens is for single patient use and should not be shared because of the risk of cross-infection. See another webpage in this section to learn more on contact lens hygiene.
The Lot Number is clearly marked in case of a product recall and the Expiry Date is plainly stated in the form of a month and a year. This particular lens has a blue tint. The tint is not cosmetic in any way, for example to alter the colour of the patient's eyes, but to assist with handling. This can be a particular boon if the lens is dropped.