Obituary: Dr. Bernard Grolman, D.O.S. - Inventor of the Non-Contact Tonometer

Dr. Bernard Grolman, long time employee of American Optical / Reichert Ophthalmic Instruments, died in Buffalo on the morning of Thursday, December 12 from injuries sustained when he was struck by a car on Walden Avenue the previous evening. He was 79 years old.

Bernie, as he liked to be called, was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY by immigrant parents who owned and operated a kosher butcher shop. He graduated from the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in 1942 and worked for GE as a draftsman before serving in the Navy as a radarman from 1944 to 1946. After his discharge he apprenticed as a diamond setter but began to experience difficulty seeing. Bernie consulted an optometrist who solved his vision problems and interested him in optometry. He entered Hofstra College under the GI Bill as a pre-optometry student and in 1952 graduated from Columbia University's optometry program with a B.Sc. and M.Sc in optometry.

By the time he completed his optometry degrees Grolman "was confronted with serious doubts about my ability or desire to service the public" and was attracted, instead, to optical engineering. He became a development engineer at the Burroughs Business Machines Corporation, designing and testing optical, telescopic missile tracking systems from 1952 to 1955. While this work was "interesting and challenging" it had little to do with the eye, so when given an opportunity to join American Optical he "jumped at the chance".

Bernie began working for American Optical in Southbridge Massachusetts in 1955. During the course of his career he amassed more than 50 patents on a variety of optical and ophthalmic instruments. However, none of Bernie's accomplishments were as dear to him, or as important to the Ophthalmic industry, as the invention of the NCT (Non-Contact Tonometer).

One day while driving to work in the late 1950's Bernie heard a public service announcement on the radio proclaiming that only medical doctors were able to protect the public from the danger of glaucoma. All of the sudden it struck Bernie that this was, in fact, true. Optometrists, at the time, could not perform Goldmann tonometry because it required the use of a topical anesthetic. Only physicians with medical degrees were permitted by law to use these. So large segments of the population were denied the protection that results from early detection of Glaucoma. In the words of Dr. Grolman: "In not too many instances is the need for a specific kind of instrumentation so obvious as it was with the non-contact tonometer."

As a result of that radio ad, Bernie Grolman, a quiet, polite and precise man, spent most of his next 10 years designing and painstakingly testing a new tonometer that would forever change the face of tonometry and the eye care industry as a whole.

After years of empirical study and seemingly countless designs, Grolman produced a single stroke, solenoid-activated air pump that, connected to a tube of certain dimensions, produced an air pulse of increasing pressure that lasted but a few milliseconds, yet applanated the corneal apex like a Goldmann tonometer's tip. The applanation detection system utilized a beam of infrared (IR) light that was reflected off of the cornea and directed into a detector mounted on the other side. When the cornea, in response to the air pulse, takes on a mirror-like surface (due to flattening) the light beam becomes collimated and sends the maximum amount of reflected light into the sensor.

The applanation was reproducible and grew in size as the air pressure grew with time and, since the air pulse's pressure increased linearly with time, Grolman could determine the pulse pressure required to produce a standard amount of applanation by measuring the time it took to do this. Bernie then empirically derived, by comparison with Goldmann measurements, a calibration curve for the non-contact tonometer.

The design was finalized and was introduced late in 1971 at the Annual meeting of the American Academy of Optometry in Toronto and later at the World Optical Fair in the spring of 1972. Bernie recalled:

"We had a booth there… and you couldn't get near it. They were 10, 12, 20 deep waiting to get their turn to be measured. I remember prior to the launch of the instrument, the director of Sales and Marketing and I had a series of friendly arguments about what we should charge for the NCT. He wanted to make it competitive with other tonometry instruments, which at the time were selling for maybe $2200, but I was arguing that this was a totally different ball game. And when we released the product at the show he cursed himself... he said he could have charged anything he wanted for this instrument. We didn't even need to advertise for the first 2 or 3 years because we simply couldn't make them fast enough to fill the orders."

The Non-Contact tonometer, now in it's 4th generation design, has been manufactured and sold by American Optical (now Reichert Ophthalmic Instruments) for over 30 years and continues to be one of their top selling instruments. Bernie Grolman's intimate involvement with the ongoing development and improvement of the NCT has never ceased. On the night of his unfortunate death he had just left the Reichert factory where he was consulting on the design of the next generation NCT. He was preceded in death by his loving wife and is survived by 5 children and multiple grandchildren.

Written by David Taylor

~1975 Model NCT donated by Reichert to the Optical Heritage Museum (July 2009); Dr. David Luce shown at right

Return to In Memory of Bernie Grolman

Dr. Bernie Grolman 2002 Interview on his Non Contact Tonometer Invention (provided by David Taylor) New July 30, 2009