Hermann von Helmholtz: Biography, Inventions & Theory

Instructor: Veronika Polozkova

Masters in International Health. Lesson development experience on different levels from basic alimentary school to academic master level. Languages: English, Dutch, Russian

Can you imagine a genius that was passionate about music and philosophy, served in the army, studied medicine and worked as a physicist? In this lesson, we will learn about the incredible Hermann von Helmholtz.

Early Life Biography

Can you imagine a person who was very intelligent, passionate about many different fields, knowledgeable about medicine and physics, and capable of working in a tough military environment? These genius qualities were probably keys to the success of Herman von Helmholz.

Hermann von Helmholtz was a German physicist and a physician who lived between 1821 and 1894. Von Helmholtz wanted to study natural science and was deeply passionate about philosophy. However, his father insisted that he study medicine because there where possibilities for scholarships if he enrolled in the military afterwards. Since von Helmholtz had varied interests, he managed to contribute to several scientific fields and write about many different topics during his lifetime.

Portrait of Hermann von Helmholtz
Hermann von Helmholtz portrait

The Hard Work and Theories

Hermann von Helmholtz graduated from the Royal Friedrich-Wilhelm Institute of Medicine and Surgery in Berlin in 1843 and started immediately with his duty as a military doctor in Potsdam. Because of his scientific talents, he resigned from this duty in 1848 and was appointed an assistant at the Anatomical Museum and a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. As his career progressed, he was appointed to professor positions at the Physiological Institute of Konigsberg, the University of Berlin, and the University of Heidelberg.

The first scientific achievement of von Helmholtz resulted from the research he did during his medical studies. His published in 1847 his work on the conservation of energy in the human body that demonstrated that no energy is lost in the metabolism of muscles. This paper was actually the reason why he resigned from his duty in the army to do academic work. But his greatest work was considered the Handbook of Physiological Optics which was first published in 1856 and republished as a second edition in 1867. The book was characterized by philosophical insight that was typical for von Helmholtz and was balanced with firm scientific physiological facts and mathematical illustrations. However, von Helmholtz also worked on the theory of music. He was able to formulate the resonance theory of hearing that could explain and support earlier theories by other scientists that where focused on how people hear acoustic tones.

Invented Tools

Besides scientific work, Helmholtz also left us other inventions that are still widely used in medical practice today. For instance, the ophthalmoscope and the ophthalmometer which are both instruments for eye examination were invented by him in 1851. When Helmholtz moved to Berlin in 1871, he started to work more in physics and less in physiology fields. He mainly studied electromagnetism and contributed much to this field. As a result, the Helmholtz equation that we still use today to resolve differences in space and time in physics and mathematics is named in his honor.

Ophthalmoscope that was invented by von Helmholtz is still used today for eye examination

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