Exploring The Last Green Valley: Optics pioneer one of region’s most remarkable women

Exploring The Last Green Valley: Optics pioneer one of region’s most remarkable women

It was just last month while researching my Bulletin column on the American Optical Company and the Optical Heritage Museum that I first learned about Dr. Estelle Glancy.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I am pleased to share the story of one of the most remarkable women who worked here in The Last Green Valley, and who came to be called the first lady of optics due to her work at the American Optical Company.

Glancy was born in Waltham, Mass., on Oct. 29, 1883. She attended Wellesley College and excelled in mathematics though her heart was set on a career in astronomy.

In 1906, she entered the University of California Berkley, where she became one of the first women to earn her Ph.D. in astronomy from the university.

At first she found work at an observatory in Argentina, but she eventually left her preferred career path in astronomy because, at the time, there was very little opportunity for advancement by female scientists.

In 1918, she found work at American Optical Company in Southbridge, Mass., the largest manufacturer and supplier of eyewear in the country and known for its vision-related innovation. Today the company is part of Carl Zeiss Vision.

Her skills in mathematics brought her to the company, and she joined the research team working on important projects under the direction of the renowned Dr. E. D. Tillyer.

Tillyer recognized that her mathematical ability could help advance the company’s development of ophthalmic lenses.

Tillyer would become famous for American Optical Company’s several breakthroughs, but it was Glancy’s mathematical work that made many of the company’s important discoveries possible.

From the moment she started at American Optical Company in 1918 until her retirement in 1951, her work led to the development of important advances in the field of vision, optics and eyewear lens design.

During this period, she was still the only woman in her field.

The list of innovations that Glancy helped develop during her distinguished career is extensive, as is the influence her research and papers had on the ability of others to innovate.

She filed a patent on progressive lenses years before they became widely accepted as a better alternative to bifocals and trifocals. (I use progressive lenses and I also wonder how many of you are using them as you read this column.)

Her work on aspheric lens design and lens manufacturing techniques helped not only ophthalmic optics, but also improved telescope designs. Her improved telescope lens designs were eventually used in camera systems as well.

She also developed the lensometer, an important piece of equipment found in most eye care practices that is used to measure the power of a spectacle lens. The newer technology used for the lensometer today continues to be based on her invention.

My research into this remarkable woman led me back to the Optical Heritage Museum in Southbridge and its executive director Dick Whitney.

Whitney wrote a wonderful article for the March 2017 issue of Optics and Photonics News, for The Optical Society of America. You can read the entire article by downloading the link found at bit.ly/2mUTY7N

“At the time of her death in 1975 at age 91, Glancy had been retired from American Optical Company for nearly a quarter of a century,” Whitney wrote. “By then, the evidence of her impact could be seen everywhere, from the progressive lenses that were finally gaining acceptance as the best vision solution for presbyopia (farsightedness) to televisions and other screens in homes and workplaces.

“Forty years after her passing, she is finally gaining notice and respect for her scientific achievements and her pioneering role in optics.”

In my travels around our beautiful region and research into our shared past, I have encountered many interesting and notable people who had a unique and important impact on our communities, our country and the world we inhabit.

I was so pleased to learn about Glancy and hold her up as yet another example of a remarkable Last Green Valley woman to celebrate during Woman’s History Month.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.