For anyone who is a fan of the TV show Mysteries at the Museum, you must see a collection housed at the University of Northern Iowa Museum. Nathan Arndt, UNI Museum curator, describes one particular object. “It’s a small but heavy object, made from a solid block of lead about 1.5 inch square split into two parts. The bottom block has a half sphere recessed into lead while the top has a matching sphere protruding from the same point. The recessed sphere has a single large circular rod that takes up the center of the sphere and rises about ¼ inch. The two half fit together with surgical procession.”
Prosthetic eye mold
What is this mysterious object and why is it housed in the UNI Museum?
The object in question is a prosthetic eye mold. It may seem unlikely that a dentist would invent a plastic eye, but Dr. Milton Wirtz said it was a natural fit for him because he worked with plastic every day when making dentures.
Dr. Wirtz, a native of Latimer, Iowa, was a major and dentist in the U.S. Army during World War II based at Camp Crowder, Missouri. He was one of the pioneers of plastic eye prosthesis. His inspiration came as he was working with a dental technician in 1941. The technician wore an artificial eye, but was very displeased with how the glass eye fit and functioned. The glass eye was uncomfortable and didn’t move in sync with a natural eye. After the outbreak of WW II, the supply of German glass eyes to the U.S. was limited and Dr. Wirtz recognized a dire need. He was asked by the Surgeon General to establish the Artificial Eye Laboratory where his team perfected the plastic eye and established an instruction program for training future ophthalmology prosthetists.
Dr. Wirtz received the Legion of Merit Medal from the Army and accolades and awards from the Iowa Dental Association for his wartime contribution. During the war, he fitted 10,000 people with the plastic eye. After the war, he worked in Denver, Colorado, for a short time. He then returned to his hometown of Latimer to practice family dentistry until ill health caused him to retire in 1985.
Before he died in 1993, he also created an artificial finger and made elaborate picture frames from the same type of plastic. He said he loved dentistry because it opened so many doors for him.
The City of Latimer donated his collection to the UNI Museum which consists of more than 100 artifacts including an original eye mold, dentist chair, tools and even a molded fingertip.
Part of his collection is housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and now at the UNI Museum. “Dr. Wirtz’s work with the military and in Iowa connects to the mission of the UNI Museum,” said Arndt. “It serves as an academic resource for our students, faculty and the public.”
You may view the collection at the UNI Museum (Backroom Tours: Monday-Friday 8-5). To hear Dr. Wirtz tell his story, view “Living in Iowa” 1993 featuring Milton Wirtz.