Contributed by Jon Golliher, MS4
In 1851, Hermann von Helmholtz revolutionized the field of ophthalmology by publishing “Description of an ophthalmoscope for examining the retina in the living eye.” His publication described the means of properly illuminating and refracting light to best focus the retinal structures using a candle and microscope glass plates. This rudimentary design received hundreds of alterations and optimizations by several ophthalmologists by the time of von Helmholtz's death in 1894.
In addition to his invention of the ophthalmoscope, von Helmholtz established himself as one of the greatest scientists of the era. He was a physicist and a physician who made remarkable contributions in a plethora of fields. In physiology and psychology, he is known for mathematics of the eye, theories of vision, ideas of visual perception of space, color vision research, the sensation of tone, perception of sound, and physiology of perception. In physics, he was known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and the mechanical foundation of thermodynamics. As a philosopher, for his philosophy of science, ideas on the relation between the laws of perception and the laws of nature, the science of aesthetics, and ideas on the civilizing power of science.
As for his personal life, Hermann von Helmholtz was born in Potsdam, Prussia (now Germany) on August 31, 1821. His earliest study focused on physiology with Johannes Müller, where he utilized his invention of the ophthalmoscope to better his understanding of the physiology of perception. He earned a medical doctorate at Friedrich Wilhelm Medical Institute in 1842 and served in the Prussian army for the next ten years. In 1855 he became professor of anatomy and physiology at the University of Bonn. His interests in physiology broadened to physics when he moved to Heidelberg where he worked as a professor of physiology in 1858. In 1871, he was offered a professorship of physics at the University of Berlin. Finally, he was appointed as the first director of the Physico-Technical Institute at Berlin which he held for the rest of his life. To this day, the largest research institution in Germany “The Helmholtz Association” has immortalized his name in honor of his contributions in countless scientific fields.