Museum of Vision

Dedicated to preserving ophthalmic history

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  1. Selections from the Sherman Collection
  2. History of Ophthalmology in the Asia Pacific
  3. Their Eyes to the Sky
  4. Great Insights and Great Thinkers in Ophthalmology
  5. Beyond Ophthalmology, Beyond the Clinic
  6. Extreme Vision: Science Fiction or Truth
  7. Contagion! Epidemics in Ophthalmic History
  8. The Eyes of War
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  12. Picturing The Eye: Ophthalmic Film and Photography
  13. Collecting Ophthalmology: 30 Years at the Museum

Helmholtz and the ophthalmoscope

Hermann von Helmholtz, MD (1821-1894) and the Ophthalmoscope

German physician and physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz's 1850 paper on the ophthalmoscope revolutionized modern ophthalmology by demonstrating how to visualize the fundus of a living eye. One historian commented, after the invention "every look into the eye became a discovery."

Helmholtz's instrument showed that light entering the pupil is reflected back to its source. Furthermore, the light follows the same path out of the eye as it took entering the pupil. Using his ophthalmoscope, Helmholtz could place his eye in the path of the rays of light entering and leaving the patient's eye, thereby projecting an image of a living retina and furthermore determine the refractive errors in an eye.

Helmholtz first formally reported his findings in a paper delivered to the Berlin Physical Society on December 6, 1850 by his friend Du-Bois-Reymond. Helmholtz then sent one of his instruments to Sir William Bowman in London. It is said that notable ophthalmologists Albrecht von Graefe and Franciscus Donders visited Bowman and while London was buzzing about the scientific progress on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, these three ophthalmologist could not stop discussing Helmholtz's ophthalmoscope.

The ophthalmoscope allowed physicians to closely examine the interior structures of the eye, especially the retina. Ophthalmologists were now able to diagnose and better understand certain eye diseases especially those that caused dimness or complete loss of vision. Helmholtz's invention spawned the publication of many atlases and effectively established ophthalmology as a specialized medical practice.



  1. Helmholtz and the ophthalmoscope
  2. Koller and cocaine
  3. Graefe and glaucoma
  4. Gullstrand and the Nobel Prize
  5. Jackson and medical education
  6. Ridley and cataract
  7. Machemer and the vitreous

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