Contributed by Riya Shah, MD (cand)
Allvar Gullstrand, MD, a Swedish ophthalmologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1911 for his work in ophthalmology.
Dr. Gullstrand was born in 1862 in the small town of Landskrona, Sweden. After completing his studies at Uppsala University, he was appointed that institution’s first professor of ophthalmology. His research focused on geometric and physiologic optics, for which he was awarded by the Swedish government.
Allvar Gullstrand was the first president of the Swedish Ophthalmological Society and later served as president of the Swedish Academy of Sciences. He also was part of the Nobel Committee for Physics from 1911 to 1929, serving as chairman from 1923 to 1929.
Dr. Gullstrand is known for his work on the dioptrics of the eye through advanced mathematical models, which allowed him to invent tools for focal illumination. His most famed invention is the slit lamp, the concept of which is still in use today. This device helped ophthalmologists examine the anterior of the eye, building off the work of Hermann von Helmholtz, MD. Previously, this examination was done with a corneal microscope, but the focus and light were inadequate for proper imaging. The slit lamp used a stronger light with a more precise focus to enable a detailed study of the eye.
Allvar Gullstrand also invented the reflexless ophthalmoscope, a tool that limited the glare from the cornea and other parts of the eye, which made it difficult for the examiner to get a clear image of the cornea. Gullstrand solved this problem by separating the systems of illumination in the reflexless ophthalmoscope.
Much of his work was based on mathematical models and equations he developed to understand the function of the eye. He created a schematic eye that included the lens curvature, distance between the lens and the cornea, and the refractive indexes of each component. The majority of this knowledge was self-taught.
For his advances in ophthalmology, Gullstrand was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics in both 1910 and 1911. In 1911, he was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He declined the nomination in Physics to accept the Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Dr. Gullstrand is the only nominee to have received and declined a Nobel Prize—and the only ophthalmologist ever awarded a Nobel Prize in the field of ophthalmology.
In his later life, he was appointed professor emeritus at Uppsala University, but continued much of his work on optical systems. Dr. Gullstrand passed away in July 1930 in Stockholm, Sweden, from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was critical in developing examination machines still in use by ophthalmologists all over the world.
Dr. Gullstrand’s lifelong dedication is best summed up in his own words: “An academic teacher and scientist who is not trembling with exhaustion at the end of a semester has not done his duty.”