A Contact Lens Legend
BY JOSEPH T. BARR, OD, MS, FAAO, EDITOR, & EDWARD S. BENNETT, OD, MSED
Contact lenses are a primary and mainstream method of correcting ammetropia. They're a vital component of any growing eyecare practice and benefit millions of new wearers on an annual basis. None of this would have been possible without the drive, passion and vision of Newton Wesley, OD.
He was born in Westport, Oregon and graduated in 1939 from the Pacific College of Optometry. A Japanese-American, he and his family were victims of anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II and were forced to spend time in a detention camp. Having keratoconus, Dr. Wesley began wearing contact lenses as a refractive and therapeutic correction in 1944, which changed his life and ultimately improved the quality of life for millions of other patients. It was about that time that he accepted a faculty position at Monroe College (currently the Illinois College of Optometry) and had the well-chronicled, fateful meeting with his brightest student, an optician by the name of George Jessen. From the middle 1940s through the early 1970s, their collaboration, first with the Plastic Contact Lens Company and later with Wesley-Jessen, was synonymous with the growth of contact lenses. This was not by coincidence.
Newton Wesley's goal was simple: to make contact lenses a mainstream refractive correction. The achievement of this goal was nothing less than incredible. Practitioners who were fearful of fitting contact lenses was one major obstacle. How to deal with the public perception that they were painful and may, in fact, cause cancer (true story!) was another challenge. To address the first major challenge, Drs. Wesley and Jessen traveled all over the country to educate practitioners (or practitioner!) interested in learning how to fit contact lenses. Under the umbrella of the American Optometric Center, they trained thousands of practitioners to fit PMMA lenses. This cohort of individuals trained by Wesley and Jessen prompted the great increase in contact lens use by the late 1950s and the establishment of the National Eye Research Foundation in 1956, a leader in contact lens education and research with an annual meeting that at its peak was attended by 1,000 practitioners while providing high quality contact lens education.
To address the issue of consumer awareness and ease the obvious misconceptions present at that time, between 1952 and 1956 Dr. Wesley spent $500,000 annually on a public awareness campaign to promote contact lenses to consumers. He helped create an awareness of the benefits of contact lenses to the public while at the same time he and his partner were educating practitioners on how to fit them.
At a time when health considerations have prevented him from attending programs that have honored him (the Global Orthokeratology Symposium Founder's Award, July 2005, and the Dr. Leonard Bronstein Memorial Award, January 2005) it's about time we help him recognize how powerful an impact he's made on our industry. Every time you improve the quality of someone's life by the simple application of contact lenses, please acknowledge Dr. Newton Wesley, for without his tireless efforts this blessing wouldn't exist in its present form today.