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Medical discoveries in the Karoo

Medical discoveries in the Karoo

Words by Rose Willis

Did you know that the contact lens has its roots in the Karoo?

Way back in 1879, a German doctor seeking relief from a respiratory problem came to Richmond hoping that clean, fresh Karoo air would cure his problem. Once there, Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick, the man who made and wore the world’s first contact lens, had enough time and space to formulate his thinking. At the time, he was one of several people speculating on the possibility of applying a lens or shell directly to the eye to correct visual disorders.

Clear your mind and take a walk in the Karoo.

A doctor’s journey to the Karoo

Before he journeyed to the Karoo, Adolf Fick was born in Lahn, Germany, on February 22 in 1852. His mother, Julie Müldner von Mülnheim, died when he was three and his father, Ludwig, professor of anatomy at Marburg University, died from a stroke three years later. Adolf was sent to his uncle and godfather, a highly respected professor of physiology at Würzburg University. A rare and beautiful relationship developed between the two and this had a direct bearing on Adolf’s choice of medicine and ophthalmology as a career.

Adolf Fick in the Karoo

Adolf Eugen Fick, the man who invented the world’s first contact lens.

Adolf did not do well at school and on July 3, 1870, he was almost expelled. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out, he enlisted and then studied medicine when the war ended, qualifying in 1876. He then enrolled at Föster and Cohn’s ophthalmology clinic.

He introduced Fick’s Law, which governs the diffusion of a gas across a fluid membrane, and The Fick Principle, the first technique for measuring cardiac output.

He was offered a post in Argentina but, because he had tuberculosis, he opted to try the much-discussed curative qualities of the Karoo air. After registering as a physician, surgeon, and gynecologist in Cape Town, Fick opted to settle in Richmond because it had a German speaking community. There he bought a practice for £100, and specialised in eye disorders, particularly myopia in children.

The Karoo

The Karoo allowed Adolf sufficient time and space to formulate his theories.

Think you know the Karoo? Take our quiz to find out.

This is where the seed for contact lens was sown and where Adolf studied the proposals of men like René Descartes, Thomas Young and Sir John Frederick William Herschel – all of whom spoke of applying a “lens” to the eye.

In 1884, Adolf returned to Germany to propose to the love of his life, Marie Wislicenus, daughter of Berlin University’s professor of chemistry. She accepted, they married and almost immediately set sail for South Africa. Their first daughter, Hildegard, was born in Richmond and so was their first son, Roderich. Then, in 1886 disaster struck. Maria contracted typhoid and she lingered between life and death for 93 days before Adolf rushed his family to Zurich. There he set up a private ophthalmology clinic; Marie recovered, bore him five more children and was also around to nurse him in his old age when he needed her most.

Lose your heart to the Karoo.

Adolf began taking moulds of rabbits eyes and had glass shells blown to scale. He found the rabbits were initially able to tolerate these in their eyes for eight to ten hours, but later for several days. He then took moulds from the eye of a corpse, had shells blown and placed these in his own eyes. He reported they were comfortable, but they made his nose run.

Fick first tested lenses on rabbit’s eyes.
Photo: earthtimes.org

He approached Zeiss’s Professor Abbé to grind and polish lenses to specific specifications. The results were satisfying, so he presented a ground-breaking paper in September 1887. In it, he made several observations and recommendations that are still valid today. The paper caused dissention because many others were ready to publish. It was New York’s Dr Charles May who translated Adolf’s paper, coined the term “contact lens”.

Fick was a health fanatic. He neither smoked nor drank. His aim was to prove that the body could be controlled at all times by keeping physically fit and mentally alert. He was an excellent sportsman and excelled at swimming and equestrian events. One day, he fell from his horse, and broke one of his legs. It did not heal and had to be amputated. He was confined to a wheel chair, but he continued writing articles until he died, aged 84, on February 11, 1937.


Richmond, once the world of Adolf Eugen Fick, developer of the contact lens.
Photo: John Donaldson

Check out the famous burial grounds of the Karoo.


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