Volunteer View: Something in Your Eye

Hi everyone, it’s Thackray’s Volunteering and Access Officer, Ross Horsley, here.

This month I’ve teamed up with one of our volunteers, Diane Moss, to look back at the eye-watering history of contact lenses. Di remembers wearing hard plastic lenses in the 1970s, when contacts were much less common – and much less comfortable – than today. She’s going to open your eyes to that experience below, but first…

Throughout the Easter break, our volunteer team has been assisting with all things eye-related at the museum, from eye dissection workshops to ‘show and tell’ sessions involving items brought out specially from our collections. We even collaborated with volunteers from St James’s Hospital, who brought their own expertise to our activities.

(From left to right – and from St James’s Hospital – Maria and Caroline, joined Josh from our Learning Team and volunteer David for one of our eye dissection workshops.)

Our new ‘show and tell’ items included contact lenses from various periods in history, including the early examples below, which are from the 1930s and made of glass. These were known as haptic lenses (‘haptic’ meaning ‘touch’) because they rest directly on the white part of the eye. This is more comfortable than touching the cornea, over the iris and pupil, but most people would still have found them too unpleasant to wear for very long. They also carried the risk of shattering and causing serious damage to the eye. Thankfully, advances in plastic were made in the late thirties, leading to the development of safer and more breathable contacts.

The space in the storage case between the two lenses above would once have held a small applicator tool to hold and fit the contacts to the eye. The case itself is lined with material, making it far from sterile. Disposable contact lenses (below) made from soft silicone hydrogel were developed in the 1980s and have been popular ever since. This material can be worn for longer and allows more oxygen to pass through it, which keeps the eye working properly and doesn’t interfere with its natural lubrication.

Prior to these advances, our volunteer, Di, remembers wearing contact lenses made from much harder, thicker plastic. She told me:

“Before the advent of soft lenses, I had a pair of hard plastic contact lenses, which were very uncomfortable but which I wore for about two years. It was lovely not to have to wear glasses, having worn them since the age of three. On a morning, it would take me up to two hours to get the things in my eyes, so I was often late for work!

I also spent a lot of time in shop doorways and, subsequently, the Leeds General Infirmary, as it was very easy to get dust behind the contact lens when you were out and about. I frequently ended up with scratched corneas, which meant a trip to the LGI and a black patch over my eye for a week.

If I had a few too many drinks, I could also lose one of the lenses by rolling my eyes, and it would end up in my beer glass (sometimes to be drunk!) so I always need to have a spare. I also had to be careful not to fall asleep with them in, or it would be very painful when I came to open my eyes in the morning, and not easy to fish out.

After two years, I got fed up with feeling uncomfortable with the contacts, and so I went back to my glasses. It was interesting that it never occurred to me to try the soft contact lenses when they came out… I think I was too traumatised by then and felt they would be more trouble than they were worth.”

Let’s all breathe a sigh of relief that the comfort and effectiveness of contact lenses has improved over the years. I’ll be back next month with more on the adventures of our brilliant volunteers, so keep your eyes peeled.