In the 1980s, Charles Munnerlyn '62 revolutionized the optics industry by designing and building the first excimer laser system for vision correction.
His family nicknamed him “Dr. Do It.”
“When you need something done, when there’s a problem in the house, or the sink’s leaking, you call him,” said Rhonda Munnerlyn ’93 in a 2009 video about her father-in-law. “He’s ‘Dr. Do It’ to us.”
Charles Munnerlyn ’62 is indeed best characterized as a problem solver—of both small and large proportions.
In the 1980s, Munnerlyn revolutionized the optics industry by designing and building the first excimer laser system for vision correction. He also developed the core mathematical formula—the Munnerlyn Formula—still used today by ophthalmologists to dictate the amount of corneal tissue to be removed during laser vision correction.
Before his technology, corrective options for people with vision disorders such as myopia, hyperopia and astigmatism were unreliable and costly. But now, the procedure he fathered—more commonly known as LASIK—affords millions of people the freedom from wearing eyeglasses while achieving 20/20 vision.
Eye on the Prize
A native Texan, Munnerlyn grew up in a series of rural towns. He fiddled with telescopes as a child and by his high school days, he was constructing optical instruments and taking photos with telescope-mounted cameras. At Texas A&M University, he enrolled in physics, where only one optics course was offered at the time.
“I still remember my astronomy and math professor, Jack Kent. We called him ‘cube root Kent,’ because only the cube root of students in his class would pass,” Munnerlyn laughed. “But I learned a lot from him.”
After graduating with a degree in physics in 1962, marrying his wife Judy in 1963, and serving three years in the Air Force, Munnerlyn attended the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester—the only university in the nation at the time to offer optics studies.
With a doctorate in optical engineering in hand in 1969, he embarked on a series of pioneering developments. As head of research and development for Tropel Inc., a company that designed custom lenses for applications such as Xerox copiers, Polaroid cameras and space satellites, Munnerlyn designed the first device to digitally calculate refractive errors in the eye. This autorefractor substantially reduced the time it took optometrists to determine the amount of correction needed for a given patient. In 1979, he also developed an instrument to test pressure in the eye to detect glaucoma.
In recognition of the Munnerlyns' generosity to Texas A&M, the Charles R. ’62 and Judith G. Munnerlyn Astronomical Laboratory and Space Engineering Building bears their names.
In 1983, Munnerlyn and Terry Clapham, an electrical engineer and longtime friend, began work on an exciting new technology—the excimer laser. It was an alternative to the common but controversial radial keratotomy procedure of the time, in which the surgeon corrected vision by making an incision on the periphery of the cornea—the clear, outermost part of the eye. The pair’s proposed vision correction system instead used ultraviolet rays from an excimer laser to delicately remove tissue from the cornea. Since the laser didn’t generate significant heat, there was no danger of its beams penetrating the eye and damaging the retina.
“We knew that there had to be a better, safer way to improve vision,” Munnerlyn said. “We just had to prove it. I actually used advanced math from another of Dr. Kent’s courses at Texas A&M to develop the core formula that calculates how much corneal tissue to remove.”
Munnerlyn and Clapham had been working on the excimer technology while employed by CooperVision. In 1987, they purchased the technology and formed VISX Incorporated with the intention of bringing their product to market. After 10 years of scientific refinement, experimentation overseas and in the United States, millions of dollars in investment and mountains of FDA paperwork, FDA approval for the excimer laser system was granted. Today, VISX—now part of Johnson & Johnson—remains the world’s leading manufacturer of laser vision correction systems.
“I couldn’t be happier with the worldwide success of the excimer laser method for vision correction,” Munnerlyn said. "It's extremely rewarding to hear from people who credit LASIK corrective surgery with improving their lives."
In recognition of his achievements, Munnerlyn is both a distinguished alumnus of Texas A&M and the University of Rochester. He and Judy have given back generously to Texas A&M’s astronomy and physics programs, and have also established two scholarships for the Corps of Cadets and a mechanical engineering scholarship in memory of Charles’ brother, James H. Munnerlyn ’58. In acknowledgement, the Charles R. ’62 and Judith G. Munnerlyn Astronomical Laboratory and Space Engineering Building bears their names.
“We feel Texas A&M is one of the greatest universities in the world, and we’ve always been excited by its accomplishments in physics and astronomy,” Munnerlyn said. “I’m proud to play a small part in that legacy.”
For a man of great vision, Munnerlyn himself was not born with 20/20 eyesight and unfortunately, was not a candidate for LASIK treatment. Only recently has cataract surgery improved his farsightedness—a condition that seems somehow appropriate for an innovator with such foresight.