Estelle Glancy, First Lady of Optics

During her entire career, she was the only female scientist in the field of eyewear lens design. Now, forty years after her death, Glancy is starting to get recognition for her innovative work.

Women have faced a glass ceiling in many fields, but the glass ceiling in glasses may have been the toughest to break through. During the first half of the twentieth century, only one woman managed to overcome the obstacles and rise to the top in the field of eyewear lens design, Dr. Estelle Glancy.

Images courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
Drawing on her exceptional skills in science and mathematics, Glancy played a decisive role in developing the Tillyer lens, the most important vision correction breakthrough of the 1920s. Consumers may not have known Glancy’s name, but they benefited from the crisp, improved optics of this game-changing technology. They carried her innovative lenses with them at work, at play, or behind the wheel of an automobile.

But Glancy’s innovations extended beyond eyewear and touched almost every aspect of optics, from photography to star-gazing. Her notebooks are filled with hundreds of pages of calculations behind the improved camera lenses she helped design. At the dawn of the age of television, she did breakthrough work that led to the development of larger screens. In other instances, she spearheaded important advances in lab equipment and worked on high-level military optics projects.

Yet even within the vision care field, where she had the greatest impact, Glancy’s contributions are little known and seldom acknowledged. The Optical Heritage Museum in Southbridge, Massachusetts is attempting to rectify this by showcasing images and documents in honor of Dr. Glancy, many of them unseen for decades. These materials come from the archives of American Optical, now part of Carl Zeiss Vision, where Glancy worked during her entire career.

“She was a brilliant scientist and the first woman in her field,” remarks the museum’s executive director Dick Whitney, who has researched Glancy’s life and times. “Her story deserves to be told.”

Glancy’s college roommate Phoebe Waterman Haas, who abandoned her science career a few months after earning her degree in order to get married, has had the observatory at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum named in her honor. But there’s no memorial to commemorate Glancy’s more substantive contributions. Until 2016, she didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

Images courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
Haas and Glancy received PhDs on the same day, the first women in the history of Berkeley to earn doctorates in astronomy. Even as a student, Glancy undertook important work in this field. Her photographs of comets are still consulted in science libraries and are now accessible on the web. But Glancy soon learned that women weren’t welcome in astronomy back in the early twentieth century. The only job she could find was at an observatory in Argentina. Glancy grew so depressed over her lack of career opportunities, she even considering abandoning science and taking a job in a factory.

But in 1918, an opportunity came from American Optical, the largest supplier of eyewear in the US, where the eminent Dr. E. D. Tillyer hired Glancy as a “computer”—that was the actual name given to working mathematicians at the time. Tillyer was a legend in optics, but few would ever know that the complex calculations behind his famous lens were done by his colleague Estelle Glancy. She later remarked that this demanding project “took the greater part of ten years.”

Decades after her arrival at American Optical in 1918, Glancy was still the only woman doing advanced lens design in the eyewear field. But over time, she became much more than just a ‘computer’, but also a source of innovative new ideas about vision and a mentor to younger researchers.

Glancy had an uncanny knack for grasping key areas where research and development were needed. More than a half-century before progressive lenses gained widespread acceptance, Glancy was working on their parameters. Her 1923 patent on progressives marks a major milestone in optical research. She also developed the first lensometer to measure the power of an ophthalmic lens, now a standard piece of equipment in the field.

A rare article on Glancy, published shortly before her retirement in 1951, pointed out that only around a half-dozen of American Optical’s five thousand employees could even understand her complex, mathematically-intensive work. But when Glancy died in 1975, at age 91, she was already a forgotten figure in the world of optics.

Even her most famous achievement, the Tillyer Lens, had helped to establish the fame of someone else. Her work on tracking the comet Morehouse inspired the 2012 film 1908 c. But when her photographs of the comet were published in an academic paper in 1909, acclaim went to a more senior male astronomer. From the outset of her career, she seemed destined to work behind the scenes, while others earned the renown.

But almost everything Glancy had worked on, from progressive lenses to higher definition screens, are still part of our daily life today. Even in her own time, her efforts helped tens of millions of people in their day-to-day activities. “Forty years after her passing, she is starting to get some notice and respect, both for her scientific achievements and her pioneering role as the first lady of optics,” remarked Zeiss vice president Karen Roberts. “It’s about time.”