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Notable figures in eye care - John Herschel

Sir John Herschel – (1792 - 1871)

Born in Slough, England, in 1792, John Fredrick William Herschel was a British astronomer, scientist, mathematician, photographer, and inventor. He was the only child of famous astronomer William Herschel. He pursued his early education at Eton College and afterwards attended the University of Cambridge, where he studied mathematics alongside Charles Babbage – widely considered the inventor of the digital computer.

Following his studies at Cambridge, Herschel worked in partnership with his father in the field of astronomy, which in turn led to his interest in optics and the use of large telescopes to observe the night sky. Using these telescopes, he discovered and catalogued hundreds of nebulae and thousands of double stars, which earned him the Royal Astronomical Society's prestigious gold award in 1826. The following year, he was elected president of the society.

To catalogue the skies that were not visible in England, Herschel travelled to South Africa in 1834, where he could undertake astronomical observations of stars and cosmic events in the Southern Hemisphere. During his four years in South Africa, Herschel completed his expansive studies of the southern heavens – creating the first total catalogue of the earth's skies.

After his return to England from South Africa, Herschel pursued his scientific interests in chemistry and photography, in which he pioneered a new imaging process called the cyanotype in 1842. Using iron oxidation, this newly invented method became commonly used for blueprints. Its popularity inspired other inventors like Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins to use the chemical process in their explorations in the growing field of photography. Later in life, Herschel moved outside of London to keep busy with various experiments and continued writing publications to share with the scientific community, most notably his findings on stars and other celestial phenomena.

In 1871, he passed away at his home in Kent and was interred with full honours at Westminster Abbey in London. His grave is beside other famous British scientists like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, who was buried next to Herschel in 1882.

Sir John Herschel's contributions to eye care

Combining his knowledge of lenses and light reflection, John Herschel proposed one of the world's first designs for contact lenses in 1827 and documented other research about eyesight, including:

  • Studies in different corneal irregularities and astigmatism
  • Suggested grinding glass to form a rounded lens that fits the cornea's surface as closely as possible, along with a gel filling to sit between the eye and lens
  • Proposed creating a physical cast of the wearer's eye to provide a precise corneal fit using a 'transparent medium'.
  • Investigated causes of colour blindness

Unfortunately, the technology at the time was not available to create prototypes of Herschel's lens model. However, his theories would provide a solid starting point for future research and advancements by other contact lens visionaries.

Other notable achievements of John Herschel

While John Herschel was an essential figure in the initial concept of contact lenses, his main scientific contributions revolved around advancements in astronomy, meteorology and photography. Here are a few of his notable achievements in those fields.

  • Credited as the first person to use the word 'Photography' and coined the terms 'negative', 'positive', and 'snapshot' to describe photos.
  • Invented the cyanotype, aka blueprint process – a camera-less method of using iron salts solutions, UV lights, and water to create a still image through oxidation.
  • Built the first large-scale telescope in the Southern Hemisphere
  • Officially named four moons that orbit Uranus and seven moons of Saturn
  • Invented the actinometer, a device used to measure the power of solar radiation and heat through the use of photons.

Final word

Although Herschel passed away before the creation of the first contact lens, his studies in optometry and proposal of a lens that followed the mold of the eye laid the groundwork for other famous figures in eye care like F.A. Mueller and Adolf Fick to create precursors to the contact lenses we are more familiar with today.