45 Years and One Million Lenses Later

Sep. 15, 2020

A Final ARTicle:
The Contact Lens Industry Has Been Good to Me

Michael A. Johnson, Director of Consultation Services

As many have heard by now, I am in the final weeks of my career as a contact lens consultant and very soon I will be able to finger-count the days to retirement. As the most frequent contributor to this newsletter through the years, it seemed appropriate to "wrap it up" with a review of my time in the contact lens industry.

I began my career in contact lenses with the U.S. Navy. After receiving extensive training from the Ophthalmology Department at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, I was sent to the Oceana Naval Air Station for active duty where I served as a Hospital Corpsman/Ophthalmic Technician in charge of the Eye Clinic.

My time in the military had a huge impact on my life. I am a Vietnam era veteran, although the “conflict” was nearing the end when I enlisted. I learned what duty, commitment, honor, and dedication were all about. My main duty was running the Eye Clinic; however, I was also a certified emergency medical technician (EMT) and attended to medical emergencies by ambulance and walk-in while standing duty.  

As my time in the military was ending, I was contacted by Dr. Joe Goldberg (Dr. G.), an Optometrist and owner of Conforma contact lens laboratory in Norfolk, Virginia. Dr. G. was searching for a Navy trained ophthalmic technician to work as a contact lens fitting consultant. The timing was perfect for me and my career as a fitting consultant began. Dr. G. was considered to be the father of aspheric contact lens optics. He instilled his knowledge of eccentricity-based optics in me and I have used this information countless times in core lens design development, patient fitting, and problem-solving. My time with Dr. G. was based on PMMA lenses, as gas permeable materials were yet to be mainstreamed.

Dr. G. sold his contact lens laboratory to Dow Corning Ophthalmics, Inc. (DCOI) based in Midland, Michigan, and I made the move to Michigan. DCOI was on the verge of introducing Silsoft and Silcon which were 100% silicone elastomer and resin-based materials. Silsoft had a DK of 340 at room temperature, which was, and still is, the highest DK contact lens material in the world. I had the opportunity to learn about these new materials and how to fit them while working with DCOI’s young research OD, Dr. Joe Barr. DCOI decided to call it quits in early 1985 as they determined that Silsoft and Silcon did not wet well enough on-eye after the initial plasma treatment wore off. The materials proved cost-prohibitive for use in a frequent replacement modality.

As my time with DCOI was coming to a close, I was contacted by Tom Anastor, the owner of Art Optical in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Art Optical was one of the first PMMA producing laboratories and had been manufacturing contact lenses since the late ’50s. By 1985, the popularity of rigid gas permeable lenses was increasing and Tom wanted to take his regional laboratory to the national level. To do so, he needed someone to take over the lens fitting consultations for him. I agreed to come to work for Art Optical and the rest is history!

It was a time of tremendous growth for the company - within that first year we moved to a larger facility and have since expanded 3 times. It was the heyday of GP lenses, and I was designing 300 to 400 single vision GP lenses a day from K’s and Rx. It’s crazy to realize that over my 43 years as a fitting consultant, I have been involved with the design and problem solving of well over one million contact lenses! In those early years, I was also doing marketing and sales, and then I became the convention coordinator. Together, Tom and I attended nearly every major optometric convention in the U.S., as well as hundreds of local and regional events.

By the mid-’90s, toric soft lenses, driven by new manufacturing technology, were beginning to overtake a good portion of the single vision GP market, opening the door for us to expand our focus to specialty lenses. We introduced our first multifocal lens, MagniClear, in 2000, followed by MagniClear Plus, and then Renovation. Renovation quickly became and remains the number one GP multifocal design prescribed in the United States, and I am very proud of my developmental involvement with this product.

I also consider our AKS (Art Keratoconus System) design to be a key accomplishment. Before AKS, we were manufacturing McGuire and Soper cone lenses but the trial lens fitting process was complicated for practitioners who did not have a lot of experience fitting cone patients. With AKS, I created a simple process of using optical zone diameter control that was relatively equal to the base curve. The design has now been successfully fit on tens of thousands of Keratoconus patients whose lives have been positively impacted as a result. 

As the specialty lens segment became more sophisticated and advancing technology and materials lead to the growth of scleral lenses, we partnered with the KATT Design Group to introduce the Ampleye scleral lens. We were the first to include a toric haptic as a standard feature in our fitting set which has been the key to getting to an accurate Rx lens faster. I also came up with the idea to include eccentricity in the contact lens power to eliminate spherical aberration and maintain consistent power throughout the optical zone diameter and compensate for decentration.

In addition to the satisfaction I’ve enjoyed as a fitting consultant and lens designer, some other career highlights include earning Fellowship status in the Contact Lens Society of America (CLSA). I was proud to serve on the Fellow practical exam testing committee for 6 years and as an industry representative of the CLSA Board of Directors. I especially enjoyed writing “Consultants Corner” for Eyewitness Magazine.

As an adjunct professor at Ferris State University, I taught the contact lens course for the Opticianary program and prepared students to take the National Contact Lens Certification (NCLE) test to become fitters. One of my star pupils, Bethany Peebles, FAAO, ABOC, NCLE-AC, joined our consultation team and is now leading the department as I head into retirement. I am very proud of Art Optical’s Consultation Team and had the privilege to individually train every fitting consultant we have brought on board through the years. In my humble opinion, they are the best of the best!

I have always been proud to represent Art Optical in person, in print, and at the podium. Attending meetings and events and lecturing around the world was an opportunity and a privilege, and I am grateful for those experiences. Most importantly, I feel fortunate to have worked with so many practitioners and colleagues who are passionate about contact lenses and to have played a role in helping countless patients see their world more clearly. My career has been exciting and highly fulfilling, and I would not have traded it for anything.

In retirement, I do not plan on sitting in a rocking chair and watching the world go by. I have heard that retired folks lead as busy of life as those still working. I plan to test out this theory and keep myself active and as healthy as possible. There is so much to see in the United States and my wife and I have a bucket list of places we would like to visit. I plan to spend many a summer day trying to catch the big one on my new fishing boat, and I might get on Facebook occasionally to see what is happening with friends and relatives. I might pick-up playing the guitar once again, I look forward to planting and tending our garden, and tackling the many projects on my “to-do list”. 

Thanks for allowing me to assist you and your patients through the years - it's truly been my pleasure.

Stay well,

Mike