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Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-94)

The German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz made important discoveries in fields as diverse as physics and physiology. Applying his knowledge of physics to his medical research, Helmholtz showed that living beings obey the same physical laws as other objects. Some physiologists had believed that living bodies were special because they contained a ‘vital force’. Helmholtz disproved the existence of this force.

Helmholtz was also important for medical research because he invented many new instruments to observe and measure the body, such as the ophthalmoscope. He used these instruments to investigate how the senses work - a question that fascinated him throughout his career. His research contributed, for example, to our understanding of how we see colour, and how we hear music.

 

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Bibliography

C Gradmann, 'Hermann von Helmholtz: historiography and biography 100 years later', History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 19/2 (1997), pp 263-271

H Helmholtz, Selected Writings of Hermann von Helmholtz, edited by R Kahl, (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971)

H Helmholtz, Science and Culture: Popular and Philosophical Essays, edited and with an introduction by D Cahan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Glossary:

Physiology

The science of the functioning of living organisms and their component parts.