Otto Wichterle was born 27 th October 1913 in Prostějov Moravia. His father was co-owner of a successful farm-machine factory and small car plant but Otto chose science for his career. He studied at the then Chemical and Technological Faculty of the Czech Technical University but he was also interested in medicine.
After completion of his course he stayed on at the university and in 1939 submitted his second doctorate thesis on chemistry, but the Protectorate regime blocked any further activity at the university. He was able to continue in his scientific work, however, by joining the research institute at the Baťa works in Zlín, where he chiefly engaged in the technical preparation of plastics - polyamides and caprolactam chemistry, and with the support of the works management, together with others, he taught those who could not study because of the closure of Czech institutes of higher education by the Germans. At Baťa's, he clearly developed his research skills and his ability to put these to practical use. The work of his team enabled the Czechoslovak chemical industry to stand foremost amongst those countries that used caprolactam and its polymer, nylon-6 (under the name of silon in Czechoslovakia), both in the form of bulk polymer and as fibres.
After the war, Wichterle decided to return to higher education and worked at technical colleges in Brno and Prague, for a short time at Charles University and in 1949 he was appointed professor of macromolecular chemistry at the Czech Technical University. When the CSAS came into being (1952) he was made a corresponding member and earlier that year he had been made dean at one of the faculties of the newly established University of Chemical Technology (UCT). Such institutes of higher education were under greater scrutiny by the totalitarian communist regime, however, and so it was in one of the bouts of political purges in 1958, that he was expelled with some others from the UCT. The CSAS, of which he had become a full member in 1955, became the centre for his work. He had been employed at the Chemical Institute and from 1959 he was made Director for ten years of the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry, which was built up thanks mainly to his efforts. There he continued in his research into the polymerization of lactams, the long-term object of interest of this institute, as well as in his work on the use of thinly cross-linking hydrogels (for which he applied for a patent in 1953), on the basis of which he later produced the first four gel contact lenses by centrifugal casting in late 1961. The actual manufacture of these took place largely abroad, and mostly in the USA, where the CSAS had inexplicably sold his patents (and even consented to the cancellation of the licence agreements!)
O. Wichterle came to be well-known beyond the frontiers of his country not only through his achievements but also because of his activities in international organizations, chief among which was the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. He took part in the preparations for its Prague symposia in 1957 and 1965, which were much applauded by participants; he had a hand in the inauguration of its fifth, macromolecular, division, of which he was to become the first president, and he gained further credit by combining within it what were for normal administrative purposes the separate fields of pure and applied chemistry.
Apparatus devised by Otto Wichterle a children's building kit on which he poured his first gel contact lenses (photo from the ASCR Office - Press Department archives)
Wichterle is the author of a large number of studies both great and small as well as several independent books on various aspects of organic, inorganic and macromolecular chemistry, polymer science and biomedical materials, while he had an even higher number of patents out for organic synthesis, polymerization, fibres, the synthesis and shaping of biomedical materials, production methods and measuring devices related to biomedical products. This was typical of his attitude to scientific research which, he considered, ought to serve society and its requirements by any means possible, without distinction as to "pure" and "applied" science.
Because of his open activities during 1968 and particularly after the August occupation, the "normalization" regime punished Wichterle by removing him from his executive positions and by gradually making his research work more difficult or at least more unpleasant, even though this endeavour was fortunately never entirely successful. What was more successful was the disruption of contacts abroad and the limitation of his teaching opportunities.
Wichterle's appointment as the President of the CSAS after November 1989, when he was 76 years old, was a great tribute both to his scientific achievements and to his moral qualities. He accepted this office as a service to science and to the Academy, while the latter institute naturally made full use of his reputation both at home and abroad. After the CSAS was turned into the ASCR, he was made Honorary President.
In addition to a number of other remarkable characteristics that he had, friends, colleagues and pupils of Otto Wichterle always appreciated the affability and informality with which he conducted his affairs at all levels right up to the end of his life.
Otto Wichterle died 18 th August 1998.
Written by Hana Barvikova
E.g. honorary foreign membership - American Chemical Society, 1976, Doctor of Science Honoris Causa Polytechnic University New York, 1991, Doctor of Science University of Illinois, 1991. Sign. I, b. 1.
Lectures - Chicago 1966 to Toronto 1968. Sign. III, b. 9.
Establishment of a Macromolecular Division of IUPAC - University of Michigan, Dept. of Chemistry, letter of agreement, Prof. Overberger, 1967. Sign. IV, b. 4.
CSAS Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry - discussions over consultancy in Biological concepts, New York, 1971 - 1972. Sign. IV, b. 5.
Dispatch by Polytechna Foreign Trade Organization to the USA, 1976. Sign.I V, b. 5.
Travel reports, incl.1966 and 1984 to the USA, contact with Prof. Prelog,1966. Sign. IV, b. 6.
Contact lenses - court proceedings - USA and commentary, 1973 - 1993. Sign. IV, b. 7.
Normalization in Czechoslovakia - prohibition on participation at congresses etc., correspondence, incl. USA, 1970 - 1982. Sign. IV, b. 12.
New Scientist magazine, article on the genocide of Czechoslovak scholars and reactions in the Czechoslovak newspaper Práce. Sign. IV, b. 12.