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Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz

Born 1821
Died 1894

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German physician, physicist, and philosopher, born August 31, 1821, Potsdam, Prussia; died September 8, 1894, Charlottenburg, Berlin.

Biography of Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz

Hermann Ludvig Ferdinand von Helmholtz was perhaps the most versatile German scientist of the 19th century. He was the son of Caroline Penn, the daughter of a Hannoverian artillery officer, and August Ferdinand Julius Helmholtz His father had served with distinction in Prussia’s war of liberation against Napoleon and had studied philology and philosophy at the new University of Berlin before accepting a poorly paid post at the Potsdam Gymnasium. The young Hermann was deeply concerned with music and painting, which influenced his later work in sensory physiology. Ha was called Reichskanzler der Physik – The Chancellor of Physics.

Hermann attended the Potsdam Gymnasium, where he was especially interested in physics. However, his father could not afford to send him to the unuversity, so he turned to medicine. In 1837 Helmholtz obtained a government stipend for five years’ study at the Königlich Medizinisch-chirurgische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Institut in Berlin. In return he committed himself to eight years’ service as an army surgeon. He passed the Abitur with distinction and left for Berlin in September 1838.

In Berlin he studied chemistry under Johann Lucas Schönlein (1793–1864), and physiology under Johannes Peter Müller (1801–1858). He took no courses in mathematics, bur read privately the works of Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827), Jean Baptiste Biot 1774–1862) and Daniel Bernoulli (1700–1782) as well as the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804).

In the early 1840’s Helmholtzhe did research for his dissertation under Johannes Müller. He became acquainted with Ernst Wilhelm Ritter von Brücke (1819–1892) and Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896). These two, with Carl Ludwig (1818–1785) released the 1847 school of physiology. Their program reacted sharply against German physiology of previous decades. Philosophically they rejected any explanation of life processes which appealed to nonphysical vital properties or forces. Methodologically they aimed at founding physiology upon the techniques of physics and chemistry. 

In reaction to Müller's vitalism, which he rejected, Helmholtz became interested in clarifying the physiological basis of animal heat, a phenomenon that was sometimes used to help justify vitalism. This led in 1847 to a famous paper on the conservation of energy, which in turn brought Helmholtz the offer of a Professorship of Physiology at Königsberg,

Helmholtz was conferred Doctor of Medicine in 1842. After completing the state medical examinations he was appointed surgeon to the regiment at Potsdam. He maintained his Berlin connections, though, and in 1845 du Bois-Reymond brought the shy young doctor into the newly founded Physikalische Gesellschaft. On July 23, 1847, Helmholtz read to the society his epic memoir Über die Erhaltung der Kraft, in which he set forth the mathematical principles of the conservation of energy. However, the law of the conservation of energy was previously esyablished in 1842 by Julius Robert Meyer, (1814–1878), also a physician. Helmholtz soon accepted Meyer’s priority.

In 1848 Helmholtz was released from his military duty and appointed associate professor of physiology at Königsberg. Before leaving Potsdam he married Olga von Velten (1827–1859) on August 26, 1849.

From that time on, Helmholtz led a quiet professional life of tireless labor at his research. At Königsberg he measured the velocity of the nerve impulse, published his first papers on physiological optics and acoustics, and won a European reputation with his invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1851. In 1851 he toured the German universities, inspecting physiological institutes on behalf of the Prussian government. In 1853 he made the first of many visits to England, where he formed lasting friendships with various English physicists, especially William Thomson - Lord Kelvin (1824–1907). Despite his success at Königsberg, his situation there was not altogether happy; his wife’s already delicate health was further impaired by the cold climate. With the help of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), Helmholtz obtained a transfer to the vacant chair of anatomy and physiology at Bonn. 

In 1856 Helmholtz published vollume 1 of Handbuch der physiologischen Optik.

Anatomy was an unfamiliar subject to Helholtz, and some said his lectures were inadequate. Helmholtz angrily dismissed these reports as the grumblings of medical traditionalists who opposed his mechanistic-physiological approach. At the same time he was becoming the most famous young scientist in Germany. In 1857 the Baden government offered Helmholtz a chair at Heidelberg, then at the peak of its fame as scientific center. The promise of a new physiology institute convinced Helmholtz to accept in 1858.  

The following thirteen years at Heidelberg were among the most productive of Helmholtz’ career. He carried on his research in sensory physiology, publishing in 1862 his influential Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik. His treatises on physics included Über Luftschwingungen in Röhren mit offenen Enden (1859) and his analysis of the motion of violin strings. 

His wife died on December 28, 1859, leaving Helmholtz with two small children. On may 16, 1861, he married Anna von Mohl, the daughter of Heidelberg professor Robert von Mohl. Anna, by whom Helmholtz later had three children, was an attractive, sophisticated woman considerably younger than her husband. 

By 1860 Helmholtz had begun research for volume III of his Handbuch der physiologischen Optik in which visual judgements of depth and magnitude were to be treated. Volume III of the Handbuch (1867), was an extended defense of the empirical theory of visual perception.  

In 1866 Helmholtz had completed his great treatise on sensory physiology and was contemplating abandoning physiology for physics. 

In 1870 the Ordinarius for physics at the Friedrich-Wilhelkms-Universität Berlin, Heinruch Gustav Magnus, died. The following year Helmholtz accepted the post as professor of physics at Berlin. He did not come cheap. 4,000 taler yearly plus the construction of a new physics institute to be under his full control. Prussia readily agreed to his terms, for it was widely recognized that his call possessed great political as well as scientific significance in Prussia’s bid for the leadership of southern Germany. He accepted the post early in 1871. 

At this time he received the title privy counsellor, and was raised to the nobility in 1883. At his 70th birthday in 1891 he received the title of Excellenz.  

Helmholtz inaugurated his new position with a series of papers critically assessing the various competing theories of electrodynamic action. This work first brought Maxwell’s field theory to the attention of Continental physicists and inspired the later research of Helmholtz’ pupil Heinrich Hertz, who entered the Berlin institute i 1878. After 1876 Helmholtz contributed papers on the galvanic cell, the thermodynamics of chemical processes, and meteorology. He devoted the last decade before his death in 1894 to an unsuccessful attempt at founding not only mechanics but all of physics on a single universal principle, that of least action.

By 1885 Helmholtz had become the patriarch of German science and the state’s foremost adviser on scientific affairs. This position was recognized in 1887, when Helmholtza assumed the presidency of the newly founded Physikalisch-technische Reichsanstalt for research in the exact sciences and precision technology. Helmholtz’ friend, the industrialist Werner von Siemens (1816–1892), had donated 500.000 marks to the project, and he himself had been among its foremost advocates. Under his administration the Reichsanstalt stresses purely scientific research. 

Although Helmholtz’ productivity did not wane, his health began to fail after 1885. He had always suffered from migraine, from which he sought relief in music and mountaineering in the Alps. In old age he began to experience fits of depression which only long vacations could cure. On July 12, 1894, he suffered what appeared to be a paralytic stroke, and he died on September 8.

In an earlier period, Helmholtz had also made another major contribution to physiology. Stimulating nerves at various distances from a muscle and measuring the time it took for muscular contraction, he estimated the rate of travel of the nervous impulse, and in the process incidentally introduced the technique of reaction-time into physiology. Between 1865 and 1868, another great physiologist, Franciscus Cornelis Donders (1818-1889) assimilated the reaction-time procedure to psychology, employing it to study the time taken up by mental operations.

«Metaphysicians, like all those who cannot give any decisive reasons to their opponents, are usually not very polite in their controversy; one’s own success may approximately be estimated from the increasing want of politeness in the replies.»

Das Denken in der Medizin. 
Translated by E. Atkinson in 
Popular Lectures of Scientific subjects. Volume II. 
«The history of [medicine] claims, therefore, a very special interest in the history of the development of the human mind. None other is, perhaps, more fitted to show that a true criticism of the sources of cognition is also practically an exceedingly important object of true philosophy.»
Das Denken in der Medizin. 
Translated by E. Atkinson in Popular Lectures of Scientific subjects.
«An old student, like myself, scarcely recognizes the somewhat matronly aspect of Dame Medicine, when he accidentally comes again in relation her, so vigorous and so capable of growth has she become in the fountain of youth of the Natural Sciences.»
Das Denken in der Medizin. 
Translated by E. Atkinson in Popular Lectures of Scientific subjects.
«Medicine was once the intellectual home in which I grew up, and even the emigrant understands and is best understood by his native land.»
Das Denken in der Medizin. 
Translated by E. Atkinson in Popular Lectures of Scientific subjects.
«The Critique of Pure Reason is a continual sermon against the use of the category of thought beyond the limits of actual experience.»
Quoted by F. H. Garrison in 
Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 1928; 4: 996.
«After previous investigation of the problem in all directions . . . happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an imnspiration.» 
Address, 1891.
«I am fain to compare myself with a wanderer on the mountains who, not knowing the paths, climbs slowly and painfully upwards and often has to retrace his steps because he can go no further - then, whether by taking thought or from luck, discoevrs a new track that leads him on a little till at length when he reaches the summit he finds to his shame that there is a royal road, by which he might have ascended, had he only had the wits to find the right approach to it.»
Quoted by L. Koenigsberger in 
Hermann von Helmholtz. Translated by F. A. Wellby.
«I consider the study of medicine to have been that training which preached more impressively and more convincingly than any other could have done, the everlasting principles of all scientific work; principles which are so simple and yet are ever forgotten again,, so clear and yet always hidden by a deceptive veil.»
 Das Denken in der Medizin. 
Translated by E. Atkinson in Popular Lectures of Scientific subjects.
«A teacher who retains convictions foreign to himself is all well enough for pupils who depend upond authority as the source of their knowledge, but not for such as require basic convictions of the utmost depth.»
Quoted by F. H. Garrison in 
Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 1928; 4: 996.
«Whoever desires to give his hearers a perfect conviction of the truth of his principles must, first of all, know from his own experience how conviction is acquired and how not. He must have known how to acquire conviction where no predecessor has been before him, e.e., he must have worked on the confines of human knowledge and have conquered for it new territory.»
Quoted by F. H. Garrison in 
Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 1928; 4: 996.

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