Man with a vision: Physicist brings sight to poor

Saturday, January 10, 2009 | 5:09 p.m. CST; updated 9:30 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 10, 2009
Atomic physicist Joshua Silver's low-cost glasses adjust correction by pumping liquid into a thin sac in the plastic lenses. The eyewear has been distributed to thousands in the developing world where costs put conventional glasses beyond the reach of many.

OXFORD, England — Joshua Silver remembers the first day he helped a man see.

Henry Adjei-Mensah, a tailor in Ghana, could no longer see well enough to thread the needle of his sewing machine. He was too poor to afford glasses or an optometrist. Then Silver, an atomic physicist who also taught optics at Oxford University, handed him a pair of self-adjusting glasses he had designed, and suddenly the tailor's world came into crystal-clear focus.

"He grinned and started operating his machine very fast," said Silver, 62, who aims to distribute his special glasses throughout the developing world.

Silver said he wants to provide eyeglasses to more than a billion people with poor eyesight. For starters, he hopes to distribute a million pairs in India over the next year or so.

In the United States, Britain and other wealthy nations, 60 to 70 percent of people wear corrective glasses, Silver said. But in many developing countries, only about 5 percent have glasses because so many people, especially those in rural areas, have little or no access to eye-care professionals.

Even if they could visit an eye doctor, the cost of glasses can be more than a month's wages. This means that many schoolchildren cannot see the blackboard, bus drivers can't see clearly and others can no longer fish, teach or do other jobs because of failing vision.

"It's about education, economics and quality of life," Silver said.

The glasses, which are made in China, are not sleek. In fact, he acknowledged, "detractors call them ugly." He said the design can be improved, but the current model looks like something from the back of Woody Allen's closet — thick dark frames with round lenses. The glasses work on the principle that the more liquid pumped into a thin sac in the plastic lenses, the stronger the correction.

Silver has attached plastic syringes filled with silicone oil on each bow of the glasses; the wearer adds or subtracts the clear liquid with a little dial on the pump until the focus is right. After that adjustment, the syringes are removed and the "adaptive glasses" are ready to go.

Currently, Silver said, a pair costs about $19, but his hope is to cut that to a few dollars.

He has distributed about 30,000 spectacles. The U.S. Department of Defense bought 20,000 pairs to give away to poor people in Africa and Eastern Europe. Those glasses have a small U.S. flag and "From the American People" engraved in small print on one side of the frames. The World Bank and the British government have also helped fund his work.

"There are guys walking down the street in Angola with a smile on their face because for the first time since they were kids they can see their town," said Marine Maj. Kevin White.

When White, who is stationed at Fort Belvoir, Va., was in charge of a military humanitarian aid program in 2005, he read about Silver's glasses, met him and got approval to buy and distribute them. "I am really impressed with what he is doing," White said. "It's a noble cause."

Silver said there has been some resistance from the eyewear industry. Years ago, one vision company offered a "substantial amount of money" to him if he sold them his technology, but Silver said he declined because he had no assurance that it would be used to bring low-cost glasses to the poor.

He said the current business model for the industry that involves optometrists, opticians and labs making custom lenses and frames is to make "very high-quality, high-cost products for the developed world." He said his "lunatic's dream" is to say, "Hold on, half the world can't afford that."

His glasses correct nearsightedness and farsightedness but not astigmatism. Silver stressed they do not replace the need for people to go to an eye professional who can diagnose health problems such as glaucoma, diabetes and high blood pressure.

A talkative man with a remarkable memory, Silver said that as the global financial crisis changes the way people live, maybe there won't be such a focus on making money and having the brightest students head into the world of finance.

"I feel people are saying, 'Hold on, there is some real work to do in life,' " he said, adding that maybe for his project, "the time has come."

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marvin saunders January 11, 2009 | 3:59 a.m.

What do you mean America is a wealthy country? Where does the department of defense of the united states get off buying 20,000 pairs of glasses and giving them away to other countrys? We have alot of poor people right here in
America that can't afford those glasses!! Bless Mr.Silver for not selling out to the vison company that wanted to buy him out so they could screw the American people out of our money!!!

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking January 11, 2009 | 4:17 a.m.

These glasses cost $19. I know a lot of poor people that spend more than that on lottery tickets, or cigarettes, or alcohol, in a month. Poor people here are rich (I mean REALLY rich) compared to poor people in Africa.


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