Newton K. (Uyesugi) Wesley and Edward Uyesugi were brothers raised by Japanese immigrant parents, Kojiro (Harry) Uyesugi and Chiyo Hata, during the Great Depression. When older brother Newton asked their parents about the relatives who remained in Japan the parents replied, "You are an American.This is your beginning, your roots." Even so, their parents did encourage some exposure to Japanese culture. The Uyesugi family attended the local Japanese Methodist Church and their father started a Japanese school—Nampo Gakuen—where the boys were taught the Japanese language.
During World War II the brothers were accepted into Earlham College instead of forced relocation into the Minidoka internment camp where their families were detained. After Earlham both went on to life-long careers in optometry and both settled in the midwest.
Newton K. (Uyesugi) Wesley was born on October 1, 1917 in the small, lumber town of Westport, Oregon.
Newton lived with myopia and a degenerative ophthalmic disease called keratoconus that would go undiagnosed for years. Although his vision required bulky glasses, Newton loved playing basketball and would tape the frames to his face. It was an expensive hobby because the lenses shattered frequently. Newton continued to play basketball and traveled to Seattle for games; during those trips he met his wife, Cecilia. As a young adult, Newton worked in an Alaskan salmon cannery, on the Oregon trunk railroad, as a dishwasher, and at a lumber camp in Westport.
In 1935, after finding the word “optometry” in the phonebook, Newton wrote to Dr. Harry Lee Fording—president of North Pacific College of Optometry—to learn more about the profession. Fording sent Newton textbooks which sparked his passion and began his education. He enrolled at the college in 1936 and by his second year Newton taught geometrical optics to the incoming class. In 1939, he graduated and became the first Japanese American to receive an optometry license in the state of Oregon. Newton continued teaching part-time at the college during the mornings while running his practice in the evening. Fording repeatedly asked Newton to take over the college of optometry, but he was reluctant to do so at age 22. After some convincing, though, Fording sold the college to Newton in 1940 for $5000 instead of an offer of $100,000 from a consortium of optometrists. Dr. Roy B. Clunes—a classmate—and Dr. Clarence Carkner joined Newton, and they ran the institution as partners. Newton’s vision for the college was to achieve accreditation by the National Association of Accreditation of Colleges and, in 1945, the school was re-established as part of Pacific University. It was the first institution in the US to grant a doctorate in optometry.
Newton was involved in many civic and church-based organization as a young man. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Newton appeared before the Portland city council with Japanese Americans who served in World War I in response to severe, government-sanctioned discrimination. As president of the Portland chapter of the Japanese American Citizens’ League, Newton flew to San Francisco in early 1942 to meet with Western Defense Command representatives. It was at this meeting when Newton first learned that in just a few months, he and his family would be forcefully relocated to camps further inland. In May of 1942, Newton left his role at North Pacific College of Optometry when he and his family were interned at the Portland Assembly Center because of their Japanese ethnicity.
Two months later, Newton and his brother Edward were permitted to attend Earlham College through the conscientious work of the Japanese American Student Relocation Council’s (JASRC). The decision was hard for the brothers though, and required them to leave their families (including Newton’s infant son, Lee) who were now detained at Minidoka.
In early 1943, as an Earlham student, Newton petitioned the Wayne Circuit Court of Indiana to change his name to Newton K. Wesley on the grounds that patients were unable to find him in the phonebook. Newton chose the surname after John Wesley to please his devout Methodist parents, and the middle initial K after his brother Kanji who died while an infant. At the same time, Newton’s keratoconus progressed at an alarming rate so he traveled to Chicago and met with an ophthalmologist to receive a pair of contacts as treatment. Newton was astonished by the clarity and correction his contacts provided, but wearing them was a tiring and uncomfortable experience at that time. Still, Newton was determined to find a way to wear contact lenses all his waking hours. After Newton attended Earlham for two years, he transferred to Loyola College to finish his degree.
Over the Christmas holiday, Newton reunited with his family at Minidoka and then settled in Chicago with Cecilia and their two sons, Roy and Lee, in 1944. For a brief period, Newton taught at Monroe College of Optometry in Chicago.
During that time, Newton had an idea to use contact lenses to treat his keratoconus just as one would use a truss to treat a hernia. This treatment necessitated extended wear of lenses of the eye and was not possible with technology at the time. None of his colleagues, however, saw the potential in Newton’s vision and he was left to pioneer from scratch. Newton partnered with Dr. George N. Jessen—a former student—and together they raised funds to research plastic contact lenses. The two named their business the Plastic Contact Lens Company in 1946 in order to change public perception that contact lenses had to be made from glass. They later changed the name to Wesley-Jessen.
Instead of using a mixture of chemicals and solutions with lenses, Newton and Jessen utilized the natural fluid of the eye and developed the fluidless contact lens—sold under the name, Sphercon. Through their research, the Wesley-Jessen company developed many influential methods for making and fitting contact lenses including the Bonnet system, toric lenses, bifocal contact lenses, graduated curves, and were the first in the field to computerize. The company also developed the photoelectronic keratoscope (PEK), an important technological advancement for measuring the eye.
Simultaneously, Newton and Jessen founded the National Eye Research Foundation (NERF), a not-for-profit organization devoted to foster cooperation in scientific research globally. In 1959, NERF held the First World Contact Lens Congress in Chicago. NERF opened affiliate offices around the world through the help of Dr. Victor Chiquar-Arias from Mexico, Dr. Erwin Voss from Argentina, and Dr. Henao from Colombia, among others.
On July 22, 1959, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen delivered a speech on the Senate floor praising Newton’s innovative spirit in the face of a serious disease. Dirksen included a statement by NERF in the official Congressional Record that appealed for collective international cooperation to solve the problems of the visually affected. For much of Newton's career, he continued to teach new means of fitting contact lenses to optometrists around the world. He also served on the board of trustees for North Pacific University.
Edward T. Uyesugi was born September 18, 1922 in Portland, Oregon.
During internment of Japanese Americans on the west coast, Edward and his brother, Newton, were admitted into Earlham College in 1942.
While there, Edward joined the Quaker faith and became a conscientious objector to war. He graduated from Earlham in 1945 and earned his doctorate in optometry from Northern Illinois College of Optometry thereafter.
On January 27, 1946, Edward married fellow Earlham graduate Ruth Anna Farlow (class of 1945). Ruth received her first teaching position in Oregon, but after one semester was fired because of her marriage to a Japanese American. The couple returned to Ruth's hometown, Paoli, Indiana, where she taught high school journalism for over 56 years.
Ruth received numerous awards for her teaching career, including:
She wrote an autobiographical novel entitled Don't Cry Chiisai, Don't Cry and also authored several plays.
Edward practiced optometry for over forty years in Paoli, Indiana, specializing in treatment of low vision patients. Throughout their early adult years Edward and Ruth traveled extensively, going to Japan, Hawaii, and Latin America multiple times.
Edward lectured and performed optometry, fitting and providing glasses for people all over the U.S.
Edward and Ruth had three children, Dr. Edward Uyesugi Jr., Col. Dan Uyesugi (Earlham class of 1968) and Anne Uyesugi.
Dr. Edward T. Uyesugi passed away December 2, 1989 at the age of 67. Ruth Uyesugi passed away November 20, 2018 at the age of 95.