Seeing the world through invisible glasses

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By | From the Collections

Why, Miss Smith, without your glasses you’re beautiful!

(…. as Miss Smith removes her spectacles and shakes down her hair….)

Be-spectacled librarians and archivists are only too well aware that the wearing of glasses carries all sorts of cultural baggage in our appearance-obsessed society.  Contact lenses can provide a welcome escape from bookish stereotype as well as offering many practical advantages, but have you ever wondered about the history of these small miracles of optical correction?

Photographs of a woman with glasses and contact lenses

From a booklet by Dickinson on “Contact lenses: the invisible glasses”, featuring his daughter, Meriel. Wellcome Library reference PP/FDN/D/2.

New information on this subject is now available in the papers of Frank Dickinson (1906-1978), one of the first ophthalmic opticians in the UK to fit contact lenses. The archive includes the texts of many published and unpublished lectures and writings by Dickinson for both technical and general audiences, along with some photographs and personalia. Together the papers take us on a journey beginning in the 1930s, when fitting contact lenses was a lengthy and tedious process, generally only available to those with the most intractable of optical problems. In the 1940s Dickinson co-authored the first British text-book on prescribing and fitting contact lenses and in the 1950s he developed  the “Dickinson Microlens”, smaller and thinner than anything previously available. By the time Dickinson died in the 1978, contact lenses were an established part of the optical landscape.

For Dickinson “…glasses are seldom worn from choice. In general, they can hardly be said to enhance the appearance of the wearer, however elegant the design.” Whatever you think about this statement (and this sometime-bespectacled archivist begs to differ) there is no doubt that the development of the contact lens has had an enormous impact on the daily lives of millions and its history is well worth exploring.

Find out more about Dickinson and the history of contact lenses:

  • UK contact lens pioneers
  • British Optical Association’s MusEYEum, home to an internationally significant Contact Lens Collection, including some objects associated with Frank Dickinson.

Author: Jenny Haynes, Archives and Manuscripts Manager, Wellcome Library

Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @LalitaKaplish.

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