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40 years on: Australia's first soft contact lens symposium

27/03/2018By Lewis Williams PhD
Four decades ago, Australia’s first symposium on soft contact lenses was held in Sydney. Insight clinical editor LEWIS WILLIAMS was in attendance and relays his memories from the history-making event.

Following the development of the first soft contact lenses for commercial use in the early 1970s, there was a need to educate Australian optometrists on the details of the breakthrough technology. Thus, the First Australian Symposium on Soft Contact Lenses was conceived of and held in 1978.

Sponsored by the Soflens Division of Bausch & Lomb (B&L) Australia, the symposium attracted 152 delegates from as far afield as Fiji and New Zealand. It included two prominent anterior segment ophthalmologists, and the speaker line-up featured high-profile local and overseas presenters.

Foremost among the overseas speakers was none other than the late Professor Irvin Borish, who was a Professor of Optometry at Indiana University and author of three editions of his landmark text Clinical Refraction.

Dr Barry Kissack, then the lens design manager of B&L’s Soflens Division in Rochester, New York, was the other overseas presenter. Local luminary, Mr J Lloyd Hewett, sometime professional consultant to B&L Australia, wasthe Symposium’s Chairman.

B&L had an established track record of similar meetings and the Australian version was modelled closely on the B&L National Research Symposium series (later North American Research Symposia) which itself began in 1973, and the similar European Research Symposium series that soon followed the US original.

Those symposia were discontinued once soft lens fitting became a routine clinical pursuit, and the industry and the prescribing professions had a better understanding of the products available and their effects on the physiology of theanterior eye.

"My research work was aimed at evaluating what kind of effects those lenses would have on the tissues of the eyeball"
Mr Steve Zantos, Optometry Australia national director and former president of the Contact Lens Society of Australia

Local speakers included (1978 titles used): Dr Leo Carney (VCO, Melbourne), Mr Charles McMonnies (private practice, Sydney), Mr John McGibbony (private practice, Melbourne), Mr Robert Kaye (private practice, Sydney), Mr Ken Bowman (VCO, Melbourne), Mr Ian Gorfin (optometrist from Contavue Laboratories, a local Sydney manufacturer of custom contact lenses), Dr Damien Smith (then executive director of the national AOA), and Mr David Pye (CCLRU, UNSW).

Mr Peter Ramsden, B&L Australia’s Soflens division manager, officially opened the program, as cases and techniques were demonstrated live to the audience via a Zeiss slit-lamp and colour video camera loaned by the UNSW’s School of Optometry (as the School of Optometry and Vision Science was then known).

Current Optometry Australia national director and former president of the Contact Lens Society of Australia, Mr Steve Zantos, was another to speak at the event and he says there was still a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding soft contact lenses at the time.

“We had had soft contact lenses in Australia since the early 1970s so there wasn’t much around and everybody was finding their way. In the 1970s and 80s there was huge interest in measuring how much oxygen was reaching the cornea through different types of contact lenses,” he told Insight.


“There was also a lot of interest in developing soft contact lenses that could correct astigmatism in a reliable, accurate, predictable way. They were very new and the initial product offerings had a lot of limitations in terms of their stability on the eye and how comfortable they were, so there was great interest in how to make them more comfortable and more accurate in correcting vision on the eye.”

Despite the Symposium’s sponsorship by B&L, the program itself was relatively generic – at least one competing company gave a presentation (Gorfin/Contavue), and several delegates from other competitors also attended.

The Symposium’s program offered practical workshops, relevant lectures, and panel discussions. The latter offered delegates the opportunity to interact with the presenters and pose questions of a general or case-specific nature, often seeking practical answers to clinical problems they confronted.

Somewhat remarkably considering the body of evidence available today, Zantos’ research and presentation focused on the effects of continuous contact lens wear.

“There were some lenses that were commercially available and had been marketed for overnight wear by a couple of small companies, but it wasn’t based on any research. My research work was aimed at evaluating what kind of effects those lenses would have on the tissues of the eyeball,” he explained.

“In those days, there was very little known about what effect those contact lenses would have on the health of the eye if you left them in place during sleep and wore them continuously for a week, a month, three months at a time. We learnt a lot of things that hadn’t been anticipated before.”

However, despite Zantos’ background at the beginnings of the soft contact lens era, he has been more surprised with the development of hard contact lenses in the years that followed.

“Back in the 1970s, I -never really thought rigid contact lenses would go very far. But in the last 20 years in particular, they’ve had a real resurgence,” he says.

“Even though they don’t have a very big market share, they’re actually really good products for people who aren’t able to wear soft contact lenses and get good correction of their vision.”

B&L Australia held more than one Australian SCL symposium but the total number is unclear. Anyone with more information is invited to contact Insight so that we can add to our collective knowledge.

While several of the presenters and delegates are no longer with us, it is our intention to try to identify all delegates in the accompanying photograph. Some identifications have been made with the aid of other images from the original set of seven taken by Insight’s Lewis Williams, who was a UNSW School of Optometry graduate student at the time.

Anyone with information is invited to email The final list will be available to all interested parties.

A report on the Symposium, also by Lewis Williams, appeared in the April, 1978 edition of the Australian Journal of Optometry.


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