Alarik Frithiof Holmgren
Biography of Alarik Frithiof Holmgren
Alarik Frithiof Holmgren was one of twelve children born to Anders Holmgren, rector of Motala-Vinnerstad Parish. He was the younger brother of Hjalmar Josef Holmgren, who became professor of mathematics and mechanics in Stockholm.
Holmgren finished school at Linköping in 1849 and then went to Upsala for medical studies in 1850-1860. His education was interrupted for periods of work as a practicing physician. He was cholera physician, and subordinate physician at a spa in Söderkøping, as well as teacher of the natural sciences in Norrköping. Internett: Holmgren received his doctor's degree in 1857.
Wishing to devote himself to the rising science of physiology, but knowing almost nothing about it, Holmgren went abroad in 1861. The high reputation of the Vienna School of Medicine drew him to that city, where the eminent physiologist Ernst Wilhelm Ritter von Brücke (1819-1892) received him cordially and later sent him to Carl Ludwig’s (1816-1895) institute in Leipzig, where many leading physiologists of that period received their basic training in experimentation. In 1864 Holmgren returned to Upsala, where he was appointed professor of physiology that year, the first professor of this discipline in a Nordic country.
Now much of his time was devoted to introducing and teaching the new science as an experimental discipline at Upsala and to acquiring the necessary laboratory space. Holmgren’s first institute was an apartment in the department of pathology.
A second year abroad, 1869-1870, was spent at the laboratories of Emil Heinrich du Bois Reymond (1818-1896) in Berlin and of Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-1894) in Heidelberg. He also attended the lectures of Claude Bernard (1813-1878) in Paris.
In 1848, du Bois-Reymond had observed a resting current between electrodes at the front and the back of the eye. Inspired by this, Holmgren in 1864-1865 showed that this current swung in a cornea-positive direction at both onset and cessation of illumination of the (frog) eye and thus discovered the retina’s electrical response to light, today’s electroretinogram. It was not until 1870-1871 that he fully understood what he had recorded, believing at first that he had seen the response from the cut end of the optic nerve. But when he finally tried shifting the electrode positions on the bulb, it became obvious that the generative source of the light response was the retina itself. A little later, in 1873, the retinal response to light was discovered independently by James Dewar (1842-1923) and John G. McKendrick in Edinburgh – proceeding from quite different premises.
Holmgren is particularly remembered for his studies of colour vision and colour blindness with reference to railway and maritime conditions. His investigations into this field were initiated as a consequence of a railway accident at Lagerlunda in Sweden in April 1876 which he believed was due to colour blindness of the engine-driver. Although the driver himself had been killed in the accident, Holmgren began a study of the 266 employees on the Uppsala-Gävle railway line; among them he found thirteen who were colour-blind, of them six green-blind. In July he presented his results at the Nordic Meeting of Physicians, which accepted his conclusions on the basis of demonstrations; by the end of the year colour tests had been prescribed for railway and shipping personnel in Sweden.
Holmgren displayed increasing interest in applied physiology and in social and cultural affairs. He campaigned for gymnastics through a society of which he was founder and president, and he established a society for folk dancing;
Holmgren was married to Ann Margret, née Tersmeden. The couple kept open house for the students from his hone county, Östergötland. Both idealists, they fought at conservative Upsala for the student’s points of view in the cause of liberalism and freedom of thought until they were boycotted by most of their university colleagues. They also helped Artur Hazelius, the creator of Stockholm’s well-known open-air museum Skansen, in his effort to preserve Sweden’s rural civilization. His wife became known as a leading promoter of women’s rights in Sweden. Their son, Israel Frithiofsson, 1871-1961, was professor at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and a leading figure in Nordic medicine, publishing extensively on tuberculosis and diseases of the pancreas.
In 1893, four years before his death from arteriosclerosis, Holmgren created a large new institute of physiology, established through a gift of 30.000 Swedish crowns from a private donor. Internationally, Holmgren was a familiar figure in physiology, much appreciated by his colleagues.