Hermann von Helmholtz


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.”[9] His publication described the means of properly illuminating and refracting light to best focus the retinal structures using a candle and microscope glass plates.[9] This rudimentary design received hundreds of alterations and optimizations by several ophthalmologists by the time of von Helmholtz's death in 1894.[6]

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.[2] In physics, he was known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and the mechanical foundation of thermodynamics.[2] 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.[2]

As for his personal life, Hermann von Helmholtz was born in Potsdam, Prussia (now Germany) on August 31, 1821.[5] His earliest study focused on physiology with Johannes Müller[8], where he utilized his invention of the ophthalmoscope to better his understanding of the physiology of perception.[5] He earned a medical doctorate at Friedrich Wilhelm Medical Institute in 1842 and served in the Prussian army for the next ten years.[3] 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.[4] In 1871, he was offered a professorship of physics at the University of Berlin.[4] Finally, he was appointed as the first director of the Physico-Technical Institute at Berlin which he held for the rest of his life.[4] 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.



Joins Berlin Physical Society

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Published “On the Conservation of Force,” providing one of the clearest statements of the principle of the conservation of energy [6]

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Published Description of an Ophthalmoscope for the Investigation of the Retina in the Living Eye, Berlin: Verlag von A. Förster  

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Published Handbook of Physiological Optics, Leipzig: Leopold Voss

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Published “On Integrals of the Hydrodynamic Equations which Express Vortex-Motions,” Crelle’s Journal fürdie reine und angewandte Mathematik, Vol. 55

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Published On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, Braunschweig: Verlag von Fr. Vieweg und Sohn

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Riemann’sHabilitationsrede, given June 10, 1854, “On the Hypotheses Underlying Geometry,” published posthumously by Dedekind, Abhandlungen der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, volume 13

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“On the Factual Foundations of Geometry,” Lecture in Heidelberg, published in the Verhandlungendes naturhistorisch-medicinischen Vereins zu Heidelberg

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Published "On the Facts Underlying Geometry,” 15th volume of the Abhandlungen der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen

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Correspondence with Beltrami

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Published “On the Theory of Electrodynamics,” Crelle’s Journal für die reine und angewandte Mathematik, Part I, Vol. 72 (1870); Part II, Vol. 75 (1873); Part III, Vol. 78 (1874)

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Published "The Velocity of Propagation of Electrodynamic Effects,” Berliner Akademie

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“The Facts in Perception,” address delivered on the Foundation Day of the University of Berlin

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“On the Physical Significance of the Principle of Least Action,” Crelle’s Journal für diereine und angewandte Mathematik, Vol. 100

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Founding president of the Physicalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt in Berlin, the world’s first scientific research center outside of a university

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“Consequences of Maxwell’s Theory Concerning the Motions of the Pure Ether,” Berliner Akademie

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Academic Appointment


  • Professor of Physiology at Prussian University of Königsberg


  •  Professor of Physiology and Anatomy at Bonn


  • Professor of Physiology at Heidelberg


  • Professor of Physics, University of Berlin


  • Professor of Physics, Military Institute for Medicine and Surgery, Berlin

Education & Training

Medical Doctorate: Friedrich Wilhelm Medical Institute in Berlin, 1842

Figure 1: Daguerreotype of von Helmholtz, 1848.[1]

Figure 2: Portrait of von Helmholtz by von Lenbach, 1876. [1]

Photo credit: Copyright ©2009, S. Karger AG, Basel.

Figure 3: Physical model of the Helmholtz ophthalmoscope, 1851. [10]


  1. Koenigsberger, Leo, 1906, Hermann von Helmholtz, translated by Frances A. Welby with a preface by Lord Kelvin, New York: Dover Publications. Google Books.
  2. Cahan, D. (1993). Hermann von Helmholtz and the foundations of Nineteenth Century science. Univ. of Calif. Press.
  3. Helmholtz, Hermann von. American Academy of ophthalmology. (2021, October 21). Retrieved January 26, 2022, from
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Hermann von Helmholtz. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 22, 2022, from Helmholtz
  5. Keeler, C. R. The ophthalmoscope in the lifetime of Hermann von Helmholtz. Archives of Ophthalmology 120, 194 (2002). (
  6. Loring, E. G., & Loring, F. B. (1891). Text-book of ophthalmoscopy. D. Appleton.
  7. McKendrick, J. G. (1899). Hermann Ludwig Ferdinandvon Helmholtz, by John Gray M'Kendrick.
  8. Patton, L. (2018, December 13). Hermann vonHelmholtz. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved January 22, 2022,from
  9. Von Helmholtz, H. (1951). Description of an ophthalmoscope for examining the retina in the living eye. Archives of Ophthalmology, 46(5), 565–583.
  10. Pearce, J.M. S. (2009). The Ophthalmoscope: Helmholtz’s Augenspiegel. European Neurology,61(4).


(Tribute published 2022)