University of Rochester

University Trustee and 'Father' of Laser Vision Correction Awarded Edwin H. Land Medal

May 4, 2007

The Optical Society of America and the Society for Imaging Science and Technology have awarded Charles Munnerlyn, graduate of the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester and current University trustee, the 2007 Edwin H. Land Medal. The medal is considered one of the most prestigious awards in optics.

Munnerlyn was selected for his "pioneering science, engineering, and entrepreneurship in developing excimer laser surgery for the correction of vision… which created a new industry and has made normal vision without glasses possible for millions of people."

Munnerlyn changed the world's concept of vision testing when he designed the first digital device for automatically determining refractive errors in the human eye. Known as one of the founding fathers of laser vision correction, he ushered in one of the fastest growing surgeries performed in the United States—used on more than 2 million eyes last year alone. After years of toil and millions of dollars, Munnerlyn and a small group of engineering and medical colleagues founded VISX, a company that is now the world's largest manufacturer of laser-based vision correction systems.

After graduating from the Institute of Optics with an engineering doctorate in 1969, Munnerlyn stayed in the Rochester area as head of research and development for Tropel, a company that designed prototype custom lenses for applications that included Xerox copiers, Polaroid cameras, satellites, and semiconductor photolithography. In the early 1970s, he produced the first automatic digital device to measure refractive errors in the eye, as well as a pressure test to detect glaucoma in the eye. In 1983 he began a decade-long endeavor to develop his ideas for laser-based systems for vision correction.

Despite many frustrations that occurred along the way, Munnerlyn and a colleague, electrical engineer Terry Clapham, put up virtually all their assets as collateral to start the company VISX, in Santa Clara, Calif. It was not until March 1996 that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally gave VISX commercial approval to use its system to correct near-sightedness, the most common vision problem. In the years since, the company also has gained important FDA approvals to correct farsightedness and astigmatism. While there are several major competitors in the business, most notably ALCON, Nidek, LaserSight, and Bausch & Lomb, VISX has risen to the No. 1 spot in the industry.

Munnerlyn received the University's 2002 School of Engineering and Applied Sciences' Distinguished Alumnus Award for "exemplary contributions to technology, business, education, and society." He was also named the 2001 Engineer of the Year by Design News magazine. He holds 26 U.S. patents in his field.

The Edwin H. Land Medal was established in 1992. Land's interests were centered on the science of optics, the mechanisms of vision, the properties and use of light, and the creation, manipulation and communication of images of all kinds. The Land Medal is made possible through the support of the Polaroid Foundation.