The Rest of the Story
Hermann was born in 1821 in Potsdam, Germany. He was often sick as a child, suffering from illnesses such as scarlet fever, and started school late. He was hampered by a poor memory for disconnected facts, making subjects like languages and history difficult, so his interest turned to science. His father loaned him some cheap glass lenses that he used to build optical instruments. He wanted to become a physicist, but his family couldn’t afford to send him to college. Instead, he studied hard to pass an exam that won him a place in a government medical school in Berlin, where his education would be free if he served in the military for five years after he graduated.
The seventeen-year-old Hermann moved to Berlin in 1838. He brought his piano with him, on which he loved to play Mozart and Beethoven. He became friends with his fellow students Ernest von Brücke and Emil de Bois-Reymond, began doing scientific research under the direction of physiologist Johannes Müller, and taught himself higher mathematics in his spare time. By 1843 he graduated and began his required service as an army surgeon.
Life in the army required long hours, and Hermann was isolated him from the scientific establishment in Berlin. But with the help of Brücke and de Bois-Reymond he somehow continued his research. His constitution was still delicate, and sometimes he would take time off to restore his health. Near the end of his five-year commitment to the army he fell in love with Olga von Velten, who would sing while he accompanied her on the piano. They became engaged, but he knew they could not marry until he found an academic job after his military service ended, and for that he needed to establish himself as a first-rank scientist. This illness-prone, cash-strapped, over-worked army doctor with a poor memory and a love for music needed to find a research project that would propel him to the top of German science.
Hermann rose to the challenge. He began a careful study of the balance between muscle metabolism and contraction. Using both experiments and mathematics he established the conservation of energy, and in the process showed that no vital force was needed to explain life. On July 23, 1847 he announced his discovery at a meeting of the German Physical Society.
This research led to a faculty position in Berlin and his marriage to Olga. His career took off, and he later made contributions to the study of vision, hearing, nerve conduction, and ophthalmology. Today, the largest Association of German Research Centers bears his name. Many consider Hermann von Helmholtz to be the greatest biological physicist of all time.
And now you know THE REST OF THE STORY.
This blog post was written in the style of Paul Harvey’s “ The Rest of the Story” radio program. The content is based on a biography of Helmholtz written by his friend and college roommate Leo Koenigsberger. You can read about nerve conduction and Helmholtz’s first measurement of its propagation speed in Chapter 6 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. This August we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Hermann von Helmholtz’s birth.