Reader and Industry Forum

Remembering Newton Wesley, OD, MD, ScD, PhD

Reader and Industry Forum

Remembering Newton Wesley, OD, MD, ScD, PhD

By Edward S. Bennett, OD, MSEd, FAAO

Leonardo da Vinci and Rene Descartes may have developed the initial concepts of contact lenses several centuries ago. The initial prototype was made in the late 1880s by F. A. Muller, a prosthetic eye manufacturer from Weisbaden, Germany. Ultimately, a soft form of the material was developed in the 1950s by Czechoslovakian polymer chemist Professor Otto Wichterle.

As remarkable as these seminal achievements were, when the ultimate history of contact lenses is written, it is likely that one name—Dr. Newton Wesley—will appear as the individual who had the greatest impact on making them a commonly used refractive corrective device. His passing on July 21 at age 93 from congestive heart failure served as a reminder of the enormous impact that one individual can have worldwide.

The Early Years

His story is a fascinating one; a life journey that would make for an entertaining and well-received television documentary. Newton K. (Uyesugi) Wesley, OD, MD, ScD, PhD, was born on Oct. 1, 1917 to immigrant Japanese parents in Westport, Ore. His family later moved to Portland and, at age 19, he enrolled at the North Pacific College of Optometry. His abilities and leadership became apparent at a young age as the recently graduated and Portland-based private practitioner was given the opportunity to purchase the North Pacific (now Pacific) College of Optometry. Only 22 years of age at the time, he and a classmate, Dr. Roy Clunas, purchased the school from his former teacher and owner of the institution, Dr. Harry Lee Fording. In part due to his efforts, the title Doctor of Optometry (OD) is considered an accredited, postdoctoral academic degree equivalent to degrees such as DMD and MD, and he remained a board of trustee member at Pacific University for decades.

It was then that adversity struck. During World War II, because of his Japanese heritage, Dr. Wesley, his wife, and their two young children were sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. By that time he had formally changed his last name to Wesley because as a practitioner in Portland, his patients did not realize that his last name (Uyesugi) began with a “U” and they could not locate him in the telephone book. He was ultimately allowed to leave the camp, receiving permission to study chemistry at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. His family was not allowed to join him until the end of the war. By that time he had made a decision that forever changed the lives of millions.

Need-Driven Innovation

It has been stated so often that through adversity comes opportunity, because adversity increases the motivation and determination to succeed. Dr. Wesley decided to accept a position to both see patients and to teach at the Monroe (now Illinois) College of Optometry and had his family join him in Chicago.

He also had a problem. From a young age his vision had deteriorated from the sight-threatening effects of keratoconus. He desperately sought a corrective method to help restore his sight; something better than the large, molded glass contact lenses currently available. He and former optometry student Dr. George Jessen worked together on designing smaller plastic lenses, which ultimately resulted in the first viable correction of a condition so important that the National Eye Institute later funded the profession of optometry millions of dollars to study its etiology and progression.

Dr. Wesley's innovations could have ended with his own correction. Fortunately, however, they did not. He and Dr. Jessen formed the Plastic Contact Lens Company in 1946. This later became Wesley-Jessen, Inc., which was bought by Schering Plough in 1980 and later by Ciba Vision in 2001.

Making Contact Lenses Mainstream

After that first fateful meeting with George Jessen and his own correction with contact lenses, the remainder of the story is, of course, history. From the middle 1940s through the early 1970s, their collaboration was synonymous with the growth of contact lenses. This was not by coincidence.

Dr. Wesley's goal was simple: to get contact lenses into the mainstream as a refractive correction. Interacting with 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 cause cancer (true story!) was another.

To address the first major challenge, Drs. Wesley and Jessen traveled all over the country to educate practitioners (or practitioner!) who were interested in learning how to fit contact lenses. He even learned to pilot a plane to make his regional lectures and training sessions available to as many attendees as possible. Under the umbrella of the American Optometric Center, he trained thousands of practitioners to fit PMMA lenses. It was this cohort of individuals—trained by Drs. Wesley and Jessen—that prompted the great increase in contact lens use by the late 1950s. This was followed by 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 and provided high quality contact lens education.

To address the issue of consumer awareness and to ease the obvious misconceptions that were 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. Between dissemination of positive information and numerous media placements, including national television appearances, this goal was also met, if not exceeded. Dr. Wesley helped create an awareness of the benefits of contact lenses within the public at the same time that he and his partner were educating practitioners on how to fit them.

One of the many practitioners who was inspired and mentored by Dr. Wesley is Dr. Cary Herzberg, president of the Orthokeratology Academy of America, who said, “Newton Wesley brought the modern era of contact lenses into existence. The safety and efficacy of contact lenses was brought to the awareness of practitioners and the lay public through his barnstorming tours, television appearances, and the company he helped create. Through those efforts, a demand and a marketplace were created that fostered a creative environment in which all subsequent contact lens designs could grow and prosper. Today we take our contact lens practices for granted, but without Newton and his unceasing efforts, most of what we have and enjoy would not have been possible.”

Icon, visionary, pioneer, educator, inventor, writer, and lecturer are all terms that would accurately describe him. However, perhaps the best way to summarize Dr. Wesley's life is to take a page out of “It's a Wonderful Life,” in which a distraught Jimmy Stewart considers suicide and wishes he had never been born. He is then given the opportunity to visualize the resultant horrific consequences in his community that occurred because he was not there to prevent negative change.

It's inconceivable to think of where the contact lens industry would be today without Dr. Wesley. Certainly it's possible that the contact lens materials present today would ultimately have been developed. But when would this have occurred? And who would have been the driving force? Would Dr. Bob Morrison and National Patent Development Corporation attorney Martin Pollak have made separate visits to Prague to consider the viability of what became the first soft lenses if PMMA lenses had not become mainstream in the United States? How many thousands, if not millions, of individuals would not have benefitted from the improved quality of life—in many cases life-changing—that have resulted from their contact lens correction?

What is the significance of the legacy established by this tireless visionary? Whenever you fit a patient into contact lenses, remember that you owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Newton Wesley. CLS

Dr. Bennett is assistant dean for Student Services and Alumni Relations at the University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Optometry and is executive director of the GP Lens Institute. You can reach him at