Eyeglasses For The Masses

Robert J. Morrison was touring the Mideast with his family in 1985 when inspiration struck. At a bustling bazaar, the Harrisburg (Pa.) optometrist saw a rugmaker arguing with his children. The kids wanted their father to retire, an interpreter explained, because he was making so many mistakes. Morrison asked the man his age. Only 42. As the artisan turned back to his weaving, arms stretched far in front of him, Morrison realized the problem: He needed glasses.

There must be millions of people in the world who need eye care but can't get it, Morrison recalls thinking. "I said to my son, Jimmy, `That's a problem we ought to be able to solve."'

STAR PATIENTS. Now, Morrison thinks he has a solution. With his son, he has created Instant Eyeglasses--prescription specs that can be assembled in minutes and sold for about $20 a pair. Backed by venture funds, including the Rockefeller family's Odyssey Fund, his Morrison International Inc., based in Sarasota, Fla., is selling the glasses for profit and for charity, in the U.S. and overseas. A public offering may come next year. If Morrison succeeds, Instant Eyeglasses could hit the mainstream of the optical business, attracting customers who want spare pairs but balk at paying the average retail $135 cost. It could also help millions of needy people see.

Morrison is no man of the masses, though. A multimillionaire thanks to his pioneering work in contact lenses, he counts as patients Bill Cosby, Barbara Walters, and Kathie Lee Gifford. And even these stars must wait for appointments as Morrison jaunts abroad: He is the eye doctor to 14 royal houses.

Morrison, now 70, hit the royal circuit in the 1960s, when he was recommended to Belgium's King Baudouin, who had tried contacts repeatedly, with dismal results. After he successfully fitted the monarch, Morrison recalls: "I went back to my hotel in Brussels and found a call from Queen Juliana [of the Netherlands] waiting. It was like a fairy tale." In time, he also treated Princess Grace of Monaco and the Shah of Iran.

The rewards have been sweet. Morrison tools around Harrisburg in a 1961 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud that Juliana gave him after he fitted her nearly blind daughter, Princess Maria Christina, with lenses that greatly improved her vision. Juliana's husband, Prince Bernhard, knighted him. Morrison and his wife, Ruth, have entertained both Princess Maria Christina and Prince Albert of Monaco at their suburban Harrisburg home.

But the guest list always includes local friends. Morrison "hasn't changed a bit," says boyhood chum Charlie Grubmeyer. He still tends to the eyes of Harrisburgers, for $50 an exam. And he has set up two foundations to provide lenses and glasses to the poor.

All the while, Morrison has created and produced contact lenses in a basement lab. In 1963, he helped fashion a material into the first soft lenses, then patented them in partnership with two lawyers. "He is one of the most original and creative scientists" in the field, says George W. Blankenship, chairman of ophthalmology at Pennsylvania State University. "He dramatically refined contact lenses from an experimental concept into a successful product." Briefly, in the 1960s, Morrison's lab made every soft lens sold in the U.S. But after a quarrel, he sold out to his partners in exchange for royalties. They later sold the rights to Bausch & Lomb Inc.

FLOPS, TOO. Not all his inventions did so well. A device for measuring corneal scars to track the course of disease was ignored. Still, Morrison, who uses self-hypnosis to cut his sleep time, prides himself on continual innovation. "I was brought up to believe you shouldn't be afraid to do anything novel," he says.

So, at an age when he could be indulging his passion for tennis or building his collection of exotic-looking hotel keys, Morrison is again breaking ground in eye care. To keep prices low, Morrison International has reinvented the way glasses are made. Instead of custom-grinding lenses for different frames, it uses premolded lenses that fit into frames that can be snapped together and adjusted to fit any face. By rotating the lenses to any of 180 positions in the frame, 26,000 prescriptions can be filled using a stock of 152 lenses. (The top price: $39.95--for bifocal sunglasses with antiscratch coating.) The line sells in the U.S. by mail order, and a chain of kiosks is in the works. The first opened in Florida on Oct. 1.

"Doggone, he's onto something," says Dean Butler, founder of Lenscrafters, the world's largest optical retailer. Butler, who sold Lenscrafters in 1988 to launch Europe's Vision Express, is on the board of a new company, Optical Care (Bermuda) Ltd., that recently inked a deal to distribute Instant Eyeglasses in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, India, and Pakistan. "The need is enormous," says Optical Care Chairman Rupert Galliers-Pratt, noting that 40% of Russian adults who need glasses don't have them. In nations with few eye doctors, the company will put vision-testing gear in stores. Galliers-Pratt, who led a successful Russian telecom startup, expects sales in former East bloc markets to hit $55 million a year in five years.

Meanwhile, bringing affordable eyewear to the poor remains a priority for Morrison. He and son Jim, 37, Morrison International's president, have designed a mobile clinic fitted with equipment to measure a person's vision and make glasses in minutes. One lab-on-wheels, supported by a $500,000 grant from Hershey Foods Corp., roamed the East Coast for 18 months, providing exams and glasses free to 17,000 people. Morrison International currently rents mobile clinics to charities in Atlanta and Tampa, and is negotiating similar deals with foreign sponsors. The company provides glasses at cost ($10 to $12) to the charities, which pass on the nominal fee. "It's payback time," says one associate about Morrison's drive to help the poor even as he pursues his newest venture. "He's had a charmed life. He wants to help people by enabling them to see."

Bob Morrison's Vision Thing

1948: Graduates Pennsylvania College of Optometry.

1963: Helps Czech scientists develop first soft contact lens. With two partners, patents the lens and becomes sole U.S. producer of soft lenses.

1966: In exchange for royalties, sells soft-lens rights to partners, who later sell to Bausch & Lomb. Develops another soft lens and becomes chairman of manufacturer Union Optics.

1983: After Union Optics is sold to Coopervision, Morrison exits lensmaking to practice, lecture, and do research.

1991: Founds Morrison International to make and market low-cost glasses and lease mobile eye clinics to serve the poor.

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