Charles 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.
He also helped change the face of the River Campus – and enhance what is taught there – with his ongoing generosity and service to his alma mater.
"People talk about whether or not they use their education," said Munnerlyn, who graduated with a PhD from the Institute of Optics in 1969. "I think I've used it rather continuously. My broad education in optical engineering from the University of Rochester has been the key component in the design of numerous successful medical products."
Munnerlyn holds more than 30 U.S. patents in the field of optics. His awards include the 2007 Edwin H. Land Medal from the Optical Society of America and the Society for Imaging Science and Technology. The medal is considered one of the most prestigious awards in optics.
After graduating from the Institute of Optics, 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.
Called the Dioptron, the instrument directed a light source into the eye of a patient as he peered through an eyepiece. Light from the pattern reflected by the retina produced an analog signal, which was converted to a digital signal and fed into a computer. The computer in turn fit a sine wave to the selected signal, then calculated the refractive error of the eye from the sine wave signal. The Dioptron was one of the first devices to incorporate an Intel microprocessor.
In 1983 Munnerlyn began a decade-long endeavor to develop his ideas for laser-based systems for vision correction.
Despite the 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. It was not until March 1996 that the Food and Drug Administration finally gave VISX commercial approval to use its system to correct near-sightedness, the most common vision problem. The company later gained important FDA approvals to correct farsightedness and astigmatism. While there were several major competitors in the business, most notably ALCON, Nidek, LaserSight, and Bausch & Lomb, VISX rose to the No. 1 spot in the industry.
Munnerlyn was co-chair of the fundraising committee for the Robert B. Goergen Hall of Biomedical Engineering and Optics; he also provided a leadership gift of $3 million to kick off the project. Officially opened in May 2007, Goergen Hall was the College's first new academic building in more than 20 years, and changed the way student and faculty scientists worked. Munnerlyn Atrium is named in his honor.
"I feel that donating something back is a worthwhile thing to do," Munnerlyn said. "I'd also like to support the new collaboration between optics and biomedical engineering because my career has bridged these areas. I feel strongly about the future of biomedical optics and would like to encourage it because I think it will benefit mankind in many ways."
A member of the University's Board of Trustees, Munnerlyn is a recipient of the Rochester Distinguished Scholar Award. He and his wife Judith are George Eastman Circle members. Munnerlyn was the inaugural chair of the San Francisco Bay Regional Cabinet.