Contact lenses ought to be one of the biggest success stories in optometry. In many ways, they are. The visual performance, on-eye comfort and range of available corrections of today’s contact lenses represent marvels of innovation from both science and industry. And, more often than not, optometrists led the way. Let’s consider just a few.

It took more than 400 years to bring to fruition Leonardo da Vinci’s idea (described vaguely in 1508) of wearing glass hemispheres over the eye to correct refractive error. In 1936, the modern contact lens era began when optometrist William Feinbloom designed a scleral lens made with PMMA, improving upon earlier, glass-only designs that were too fragile, cumbersome and oxygen impermeable to wear more than a few hours.

Dr. Feinbloom also co-founded Frontier Contact Lens, which later went on to make the lenses that were eventually sold to Johnson & Johnson and developed into the Acuvue lens that set many benchmarks for success in contact lens wear over the years.

Newton Wesley, OD, developer of the first successful RGP, partnered with George Jessen, OD, to form the company that once bore their names and whose technology and heritage are now under the auspices of Alcon. Drs. Wesley and Jessen, both tireless advocates for contact lens wear, were hugely influential in bringing the concept into the mainstream.

“Wesley and Jessen taught all of us how to fit contact lenses,” Frank Fontana, OD, said in a retrospective we published in 1999. “They almost single-handedly developed the market for contact lenses, just by traveling around the country educating people.”

Dr. Fontana, a beloved icon in the profession himself, was one of the founders of the AOA’s Contact Lens Section and a long-time advocate for the modality.

Chemist Otto Wichterle, pioneer of the hydrogel contact lens material, was cloistered away in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia when he published his landmark paper on HEMA in 1960. That article inspired Pennsylvania optometrist Robert Morrison to travel to Wichterle’s lab and bring his concepts back to the US.

“Wichterle’s accomplishments might have died behind the Iron Curtain were it not for the persistence of Robert Morrison,” said Joseph Shovlin, OD, in the same 1999 retrospective. Dr. Morrison’s commercialization of Wichterle’s work made its way into Bausch + Lomb’s SofLens, the product that first brought hydrogel contact lenses to the masses.

So, the contact lens business clearly has optometry in its DNA. It’s as homegrown a field as you could ever ask for. Drs. Feinbloom, Wesley, Jessen, Morrison—and, of course, dozens and dozens more—gave life to da Vinci’s vision through inspiration, ingenuity and dedication to the cause.

It’s dismaying to see their achievements dying on the vine. Estimates say that about 50% of the population has refractive error, but only 10% wear contact lenses. How did a product that’s demonstrably better than glasses in so many ways become a niche item?

The Final Frontier

Though there’s always room for progress, the major scientific challenges to full-time contact lens wear—optics, safety, comfort, mass production—have largely been solved. What remains? Business hurdles, especially in educating patients on the notion of value and meeting the expections you’ve set.

A reader poll in our first contact lens report found the average price for soft contact lenses was $300—in 1977! That’s about $1,200 today. And how many patients of our 1977 readers wore contact lenses? Yup, 10%. The cost of lens wear has come down dramatically. Quality, safety and convenience have gone up immesurably. And yet the market share hasn’t budged.

That’s why this contact lens report—our 38th—focuses specifically on business obstacles that are holding back the category. Inside, you’ll find a plethora of ideas on how to connect better with patients, so that they see contact lens wear for the gift it truly is. From now on, the contact lens engine will be fueled by individual ODs at the grass roots level, not inventors. The next innovator to follow in Dr. Feinbloom’s footsteps is you.