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 (1883-1975). Glancy’s brilliance in mathematics and lab skills helped create some of the significant advance in vision correction of the 1920s.
They may not have known Glancy’s name, but 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. She developed a breakthrough camera lens—a project requiring 200 pages of handwritten calculations—that helped photographers take sharper, clearer pictures. Experts in the field of television drew on her research in creating larger screens. Her work also contributed to advancements in telescopes, eye exam equipment and military optics.
Yet today, very few people know about Estelle Glancy, even with the field of consumer optics. She isn’t memorialized in any statue or monument. Yet her college roommate Phoebe Waterman Haas, who gave up science 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 in her honor.
Haas and Glancy received their doctorates on the same day, the first women in the history of Berkeley to earn PhDs in astronomy, but only Glancy pursued a long career as a scientist. Her roommate Haas focused instead on family and child, but her son became a billionaire, and a family donation earned his mother naming rights at the Smithsonian’s observatory.
Glancy’s lasting legacy was only in the tremendous utility and wide range of her research work. Soon after completing her PhD, Glancy had to abandon her hopes for a career in astronomy. After seeing men without her training and credentials secure the available positions, she despaired of ever using her scientific talents, and even considered taking a job in an airplane factory.
But in 1918, an opportunity came from American Optical, than the largest supplier of eyewear in the US, where the eminent Dr. E. D. Tillyer saw that Glancy’s skills could advance the company’s key research projects.
Tillyer became famous in the field, but few know that the mathematical work that made his breakthrough lens possible was undertaken by his colleague Estelle Glancy.
She later noted that this single project “took the greater part of ten years.” More than three decades after joining the research team in Southbridge, MA, in 1918, Glancy was still the only woman in her field.
By then she was more than a pioneering woman in science, but also a catalyst for the innovations of others. Her papers were studied at universities, her patents advanced the field of optics, and her know-how laid the foundation for further improvements in vision correction for millions of people.
In eyewear, she anticipated many innovations long before they entered the marketplace. She filed a patent on progressive lenses in 1923—a half century before these became widely accepted as a superior alternative to bifocals and trifocals. She developed the first lensometer to measure the power of a spectacle lens, now a standard piece of equipment in optical dispensaries.
An article on Glancy from 1948 noted that AO employed five thousand people at the time, but probably only a half-dozen could understand the nature and depth of her research. At the time of her death in 1975 at age 91, Glancy had been retired for almost a quarter of a century. But by then evidence of her impact could be seen everywhere—from the progressive lenses that were finally accepted as the best vision solution for presbyopia to the televisions and other screens at homes and workplaces.
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. Her story deserves be to told.