In the history of contact lenses, few stories are more intriguing than that of Johanne Frederic Volle. On Nov. 12, 1900, Mr. Volle applied for the first U.S. patent in the field of contact lenses. It was just 12 years after the first contact lenses were introduced in Europe. The question is: how did a tinsmith from Scranton, MS who had no optical or medical background come to invent and patent (Figure 1) the first contact lens in U.S. history?

Figure 1. Johanne Frederic Volle was granted a U.S. Patent on March 3, 1903; two years later, before he could manufacture his first contact lens, he died.
Image courtesy of Contact Lens Museum in Forest Grove, OR

Searching for Clues

What little we know about Mr. Volle comes from a December 1985 article in Contact Lens Forum by Jonathan Scott, a staff writer for the Mississippi Press, a daily newspaper in Pascagoula, MS. According to Mr. Scott, the search for information related to Mr. Volle began in 1983 when Dr. Henry Knoll, a research scientist at Bausch + Lomb, came across the patent in a 1942 book by Theo Obrig titled Contact Lenses.

Dr. Knoll found that Mr. Volle had lived in Scranton, MS, which was absorbed by Pascagoula in 1904. Dr. Knoll’s search then came to the attention of local historian E.V. Curry, whose “interest was deeply aroused, in what could be such an important event in local history.”

From the 1900 census records, Mr. Curry determined that Mr. Volle was born in Germany in 1837 and entered the United States in 1852 (28 years before the first contact lenses were used in Europe). His listed occupation was that of a tinsmith. Mr. Curry found that Mr. Volle placed notices advertising his services in the weekly newspaper Democrat Star from 1900 to 1905. The ads noted that he worked with copper, tin, iron, and water pipes.

The last mention of Mr. Volle that Mr. Curry could locate was his newspaper obituary, published on March 17, 1905. Lin Jacobson, Mr. Volle’s last living relative, said that he knew nothing about the family’s connection to the U.S. patent. When Mr. Jacobson rummaged through his attic, he was only able to find Mr. Volle’s prayer book.

Mr. Curry summed up his investigation by stating, ”unfortunately, nothing had been uncovered in Volle’s life, that in any way, relates to his invention of a contact lens.”

Because Mr. Volle was living in the United States when the first contact lenses were invented in Europe (1888), it is unlikely that he would have been aware of this early work. Therefore, Dr. Knoll provides two theories. One, as a tinsmith or plumber, Mr. Volle may have had glasses that were not conducive to his occupation and perhaps visited an eye doctor who had read one of the European articles. Two, Mr. Volle’s knowledge of optometry may have stemmed from his association with Judge Charles Chidsey, who appears on Mr. Volle’s patent application as a notary public and Justice of the Peace. Judge Chidsey wrote articles for a national magazine called Manufacturers Record. It is possible that he may have come across an early report on contact lenses and presented the idea to Mr. Volle.

Mr. Scott concluded his 1985 article by saying that “perhaps the answer to Volle’s knowledge of optometry and contact lenses was buried with him in 1905.” And so ends one of the great detective stories in the history of contact lenses. CLS