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Winter 2021



Natalie Bobrowska

The man behind the newly named Wesley Foundation Research Center.

Do you wear comfortable contact lenses for long periods of time? Dr. Newton K. Wesley is one of the people to thank for that innovation. The Monroe College of Optometry (now Illinois College of Optometry) faculty member, Dr. Wesley, is considered a pioneer in the contact lens industry. He became one of the leading developers and manufacturers of comfortable contact lenses. Without his dedication, struggle, and creativity, the modern contact lens that we know today would not exist in the same way. Before optometry schools had courses in contact lenses, Dr. Wesley trained doctors in the art and science of fitting contacts to their patients. Thousands of doctors were grateful to him for giving them this specialty practice.

Dr. Wesley was born in Westport, Oregon to Japanese-immigrant parents in 1917. He excelled in high school and graduated early at age 16. From there, he enrolled at the North Pacific College of Optometry in Portland, Oregon. By the time he was 22 years old, he had opened his first optometry practice in Portland and began to practice at his alma mater after his former teacher, Dr. Harry Lee Fording, sold him the practice for $5,000. However, as World War II escalated, so did the dislike and fear of Japanese immigrants. In 1942, only a short year after he married the late Cecilia Sasaki Wesley, Dr. Wesley and his family were initially incarcerated at the Portland Assembly Center. He spent three months at the Center and then gained his freedom to further his education at Earlham College while his family was sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho by Executive Order 9066. Despite this, Dr. Wesley would practice under his former name, Uyesugi, in the Japanese community later on in his practice. He was later given permission to leave the internment camp, although without his family, only under the agreement that he relocate to the Midwest. 


Wesley Foundation Renderings

Dr. Wesley's personal belongings are now on display at the 
ICO Library for visitors to see. 

While at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, he anglicized his name from Uyesugi to Wesley for fear of further persecution. He later settled in Chicago. When his family was released from the Japanese internment camp at the end of World War II, they joined him in Uptown. It was in a basement in Uptown where Dr. Wesley would find a solution to his own vision problems: smaller, thinner, and longer-wearing contact lenses. The optometrist himself had worn glasses since the age of nine and began suffering from bilateral keratoconus as a senior in college. He had been told by experts that he would likely lose his sight altogether. 

Dr. Wesley was fitted with contact lenses at the advice of a Chicago ophthalmologist. This helped his vision considerably, as well as slowed the progress of his keratoconus. However, the contact lenses that were available in the 1940s were not suitable to be worn for long periods of time. While living in Chicago, Dr. Newton Wesley became an instructor at the Monroe College of Optometry (now ICO) in 1944. In 1945, he met a student, George Jessen, with whom he would pioneer a new type of contact lens. 

Dr. Wesley and George Jessen partnered and began to research and develop a new type of contact lens that was more comfortable when worn for long periods of time. After six years of research, they developed plastic lenses; better-known as rigid contact lenses, which fit over the cornea and not on the sclera (unlike previous lenses). This new type of contact lens saved Dr. Wesley’s own vision from further deterioration. 

With this new invention, Dr. Wesley and Jessen took it to market by opening their own company titled ‘Plastic Contact Lens Company,’ which later became ‘Wesley-Jessen Inc.’ The company began to manufacture and distribute the new and more comfortable lens after a dynamic marketing campaign to convince the public that the lens was safe to place in the eye. Dr. Wesley toured the country and addressed audiences via the television to promote the lenses. Audiences remembered Dr. Wesley for his bushy sideburns and contact lens-wearing rabbit model, Leo. In the 1950s, Dr. Wesley even campaigned to get the words “contact lens” into the dictionary. 

Dr. Newton K. (Uyesugi) Wesley is remembered as a pioneer of contact lenses, spirited entrepreneur, and pseudo-celebrity marketer. He died on July 21, 2011 at the age of 93.

Since the passing of Dr. Wesley, his children, namely Lee Wesley, Lee Wesley’s wife Vicki Granacki, and Roy Wesley, founded the Dr. Newton K. Wesley Foundation Fund (NKWF). The Dr. Newton K. Wesley Foundation is dedicated to eye research and preserving the legacy of their father. In 2016, the NKWF agreed to support a new research project at Illinois College of Optometry. ICO will be researching orthokeratology, a topic that Dr. Wesley himself was interested in. The Foundation also donated a collection of Dr. Wesley’s personal belongings, which are now on display at the ICO Library. The collection includes experimental lenses created by Wesley-Jessen Inc., Japanese contact lens cases and eye drops, a personalized retinoscope and ophthalmoscope embossed with the name ‘Newton K. Wesley OD’. For those who cannot make it to ICO's campus we wanted to include a few of the many fascinating objects the foundation donated. We kindly thank the Newton K. Wesley Foundation for their generous donation.

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