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The Eyes Have It: Nisei Contact Lens Pioneer Dr. Newton Wesley

One fun area of work in history is discovering the connections between everyday products and their unheralded inventors. There is the street light, developed by African-American inventor and engineer Lewis H. Latimer. Or take the Bing cherry, developed by Ah Bing, a Chinese immigrant horticulturist in Oregon. Or there is the case of Frank Zamboni, the son of Italian immigrants in Idaho who developed the ice-resurfacing machine that bears his name. One particularly intriguing figure in this respect is Dr. Newton K. Wesley, the Nisei inventor and optometrist who played a leading role in the development of the contact lens.

He was born Newton Uyesugi on October 1, 1917, in Westport, Oregon. According to family lore, he was named for the physician who delivered him. Eight years later, the Uyesugi family moved to Portland, Oregon. The young Newton first made his name not in science, but in sports. In 1934, at age 16, he was named president of the Osei Asahis, the basketball team of Portland’s Osei athletic club, and he was reelected in 1935. By 1938–39 he had moved up to starring for the Busseis in the Oregon Japanese basketball league—by January 1939 was leading the league in scoring with 67 points. In June 1939, he was elected president of the local Methodist Church’s Epworth League. He meanwhile joined the Portland chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, and was elected its president in 1941, and re-elected a year later. In 1941, he married Cecilia Sasaki, with whom he would have two children. After Cecilia’s death he later married Sandra Morgan, with whom he had five more children.

Optometry sign and equipment, ca. 1939 (Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Masao Takeshita [91.121.9.19])

The question of improving vision concerned him beginning in his early days. The young Newton had eye troubles from youth. Beginning at age 9 he wore glasses, but his eyesight continued to decline. In spite of his vision troubles—or because of them—he attended the North Pacific College of Optometry, graduating in 1939. When he was a college senior he developed bilateral Keratoconus, leaving him with increasingly limited sight. He was nonetheless able to graduate in 1939, and thereafter opened up an optometry practice in Portland.

In the years that followed, he changed his name from “Uyesugi” to “Wesley.” According to one source, he advertised himself in the Portland telephone directory as “Dr. Newton K. Wesley” (choosing the name to appeal to his devout Methodist parents, with the K. in honor of a brother who died young) because Uyesugi was too difficult for non-Japanese to pronounce. He continued to be known within the Japanese community under the name Uyesugi over the following years—he ran newpaper ads for his optician business in the Japanese American press.

Soon after Wesley’s graduation, his former teacher Dr. Harry Lee Fording, the owner of the North Pacific College of Optometry, offered to sell the business to him for $5,000. Wesley was only twenty-two years old at the time, but he and another classmate, Dr. Roy Clunas, managed to buy the school in 1940.

In 1942, Wesley and Clunas were forced to close their school when Wesley and his family were confined at the Portland Assembly Center. After a few months, he was able to leave confinement and enroll at Earlham College, a Quaker institution in Richmond, Indiana.

After leaving Earlham, he settled in Chicago. While Wesley refused to return to Portland, he retained his interest in the North Pacific College, which in 1945 became the Pacific University College of Optometry. Thanks in part to Wesley’s campaigning, the O.D. Degree became recognized as a standard postgraduate degree.

In 1944, Wesley began wearing contact lenses, which arrested the progress of his keratoconus and saved his sight. Around this same time, he accepted a faculty position at Monroe College (later the Illinois College of Optometry). One of his students, George Jessen, soon became his partner in the field of contact lenses. In 1946, the two men formed the Plastic Contact Lens Company of Chicago (later known as Wesley-Jessen Corporation).

Early contact lenses distorted the cornea, harming vision, and were so uncomfortable that they could only be worn for short stretches. Wesley and Jessen spent six years of intensive research designing plastic lenses that would correct keratoconus and permit the wearer improved vision, but still be comfortable. Wesley coined term orthokeratology (OK) for gas permeable contact lenses that flatten the cornea into a different shape. Their first lenses were produced on a sewing machine treadle.

By 1956, he and Jenssen had developed a very small lens that would fit only onto the spherical portion of the cornea and not harm the wearer’s vision. He also began working on the Photo Electric Keratoscope, a diagnostic instrument, which Wesley-Jessen began manufacturing a decade later. Ultimately Wesley left his practice to run the contact lens manufacturing business and advocate for the use of contact lenses. Wesley bought his own airplane and flew all over the United States to lecture to eye doctors about contact lenses and to train optometrists to fit them, and did media interviews. His efforts were crowned with notable success in 1970, when contact lenses were approved by the American Medical Association.

Around the same time as they developed their first commercial lenses, Wesley and Jessen developed sets of bifocal lenses. Although Wesley was unable to obtain a patent for the bifocals, as he discovered that he had been beaten by inventor John de Carle, the two ultimately joined forces in 1959 to form the Sphercon LensCompany, initially as the British branch of the Plastic Contact Lens Company of Chicago, which used de Carle’s patents and Wesley’s technology. In 1963, the Plastic Contact Lens Company of Chicago went pubic as Wesley-Jessen. Wesley meanwhile sold Sphercon, which became known as Contactalens. Wesley also opened joint ventures in other countries, beginning with Argentina and Japan. Eventually he owned shares in companies in 33 countries. In the late 1970s, Wesley Jessen began manufacturing soft contact lenses, including colored lenses.

In 1955, Wesley started the Contact Lens Association of Optometry (CLAO) and the National Eye Research Foundation (NERF) in order to promote research and clinical studies specifically regarding contact lenses, and their applications for improvements in vision and health. Wesley served as Chairman until he retired from optometry in 2000. NERF provided grants for research to doctors and schools of optometry, notably the Illinois College of Optometry and the Pacific University School of Optometry. Through the NERF, Wesley opened an Eye Research Clinic in Northbrook, Illinois, using techniques devised by his brother Dr. Edward Uyesugi. His son, Roy Wesley, became involved on a full time basis from 1981 to 1992 as president and director of the Eye Research Clinic.

Dr. Newton K. Wesley died on July 21, 2011, at age 93, from congestive heart failure.

 

© 2017 Greg Robinson

basketball contact lens inventor Newton Uyesugi Newton Wesley optometrist