Toward the end of my first year as a student at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, an interesting job posting on the bulletin board in the student lounge grabbed my attention. A representative of Bausch & Lomb, a contact lens company based in Rochester, New York, would be coming to the College to interview students for a unique summer internship program. One student was to be selected from each of the Colleges of Optometry. The students would come to Rochester to be trained on the fitting of B & L soft contact lenses. We would then accompany the local B & L rep servicing the territory around each college or university as a liaison of sorts between the company and individual practices.
But here was the rub, I thought: I hadn’t yet had a course about contact lenses! The only thing I knew about contact lenses was that I wore them, and they were of the PMMA or “hard” contact lens variety. Soft or hydrophilic contact lenses were still something relatively new. In fact, B & L was only the second entry in the marketplace. No problem, the interviewer advised. My lack of experience might actually be an advantage, since I wouldn’t be confused by the fact that to date, contact lenses had been fit based on deriving the optimal base curve independent of the power of the lens. The B & L Soflens was fit based on something called the Posterior Apical Radius, or P.A.R., and each time you changed the power of the lens you also altered the fit. This necessitated toggling between different so-called Series of lenses N, F, B, or C, each with a fixed diameter of 12.5 millimeters, seemingly a process of trial and error. It proved to be challenging for practitioners to integrate this new modality into their existing practices.
What a phenomenal opportunity for a young student! Although we would not be paid for the summer, it could provide a unique window into optometric and ophthalmologic practices. All B & L was looking for were bright and motivated students with a personality. Despite that, they hired me for the program! So off to Rochester I went for a week, representing PCO, joined by one student from each of the other colleges. I wish I could locate our “class photo”, though I distinctly recall several – Ron Seger from Berkeley; Joe Parisi from Ohio State, and Charlie Shiel from SUNY. It was a great bonding experience at the time. Our mentor that week was Alan Touch, a young optometrist who was highly knowledgeable regarding hydrophilic lens polymers, corneal physiology and topography, and considerations of the P.A.R./Series fitting approach.
After being immersed in the fitting technology, we teamed up with our local reps. Mine was a genial giant by the name of John Hale, and we would lug our fitting sets to each account, stocked with every possible combination of lens series and power. After the use of each trial lens we would have to rinse it in sterile saline, fill the vial with fresh saline, crimp it, and place it in the autoclave for sterilization before it could be used again. Something also comes to mind about salt tablets used in the process that were the size of baby aspirin.
After that summer, contact lenses became my passion. I suspect the same held true for the other students as well. For several months after the program was over, local eyecare practitioners continued to call me for assistance. I had to politely explain that my summer gig was over, but the goodwill engendered by the company and for the college was invaluable. The experience motivated me to scribe for our contact lens course during our third year, and led to a Bausch & Lomb Research Fellowship Grant in my senior year, during which I was able to merge an interest in binocular vision and vision development together with contact lenses. It was the perfect fusion.
I don’t know if Bausch & Lomb ever repeated the program that they crafted for optometric students in the summer of 1974, but you can see how this might be a successful prototype for any company in the ophthalmic industry. This holds true particularly for companies who are engaged in innovative or disruptive technology. Several in the vision therapy community come to mind.
Addendum 02/03/21: Dr. Charlie Shiel sent me the photo of our “Dirty Dozen” that assembled in Rochester (photo date June 21, 1974). Blast from the past!