2018 Legacy Inductee
Alfred Bielschowsky, MD (1871-1940)
Legacy Summary Statement
Recognized worldwide as a great strabismologist, Bielschowsky emigrated from Germany to be Professor and Director of the Eye Institute at Dartmouth Medical College in 1936. He had extensive knowledge of sensory physiology and knew how to apply it in a clinical setting. His eponymic head tilt test remains relevant today.
Alfred Bielschowsky was born in Namslau, Silesia, originally part of Germany, but now situated in Poland. He came from a long line of eminent scholars. His father Hermann Bielschowsky was a respected citizen and a successful merchant and banker. His mother Selma was Dutch. Although of Jewish descent, he converted to Catholicism during his teenage years. He graduated from the local catholic high school in 1889.
He studied medicine at the University of Breslau, and University of Heidelberg, graduating in 1891. He received his doctorate in surgery at Humboldt University in Berlin in 1893. He obtained his medical license in Leipzig in 1894.
After military service he returned to the University Eye Clinic in Leipzig and the adjacent physiological institute where he combined his interests in the physiology and pathology of ocular motility and sensory aspects of binocular vision with his clinical experiences. He collaborated with Frans Bruno Hofmann in the laboratory of renowned physiologist Ewald Hering, giving him a unique scientific background for his future contributions. In 1900, they co-authored the first paper on the “head inclination test”. Another innovation, known as the Bielschowsky phenomenon, uses a darkening glass wedge test in the evaluation of DVD.
Bielschowsky became an outstanding scientist and university lecturer. He was promoted to associate professor in 1906 and served as Chair of the Leipzig Eye Clinic from 1906-1912. In 1912, as World War I approached, he accepted a position as Chair of Ophthalmology in the University Eye Clinic at the University of Marburg. Bielschowsky was involved in treating the eye injuries of severely wounded soldiers, many of whom had been blinded by shrapnel and poison gas. For this war effort, he was awarded the Iron Cross. In 1923, he became a full professor and Chair of the Ophthalmology Department at the University of Breslau. He wrote his first book on ocular muscle pareses, “Die Lähmungen der Augenmuskeln”, which was published in German in 1932.
In 1933, the incoming tide of anti-Semitism changed his future. Despite his adopted religion, he was no longer permitted to retain his chairmanship of the department. He took a leave of absence, intending to return to Breslau. He accepted an invitation to give a lecture tour in the US where he gave outstanding and well-attended lectures, part didactic but with many clinical examples and using innovative lantern slides.
Bielschowsky’s expertise and international reputation resulted in a full time position at Dartmouth Eye Institute in New Hampshire where he collaborated with other experts in physiological optics. Many research papers were published by these visual physiologists during this productive period. Bielschowsky was a clinician and surgeon as well as a teacher and researcher and became the head of the institute, a position he maintained until his sudden death in 1940.
Noted for his modesty, dignity and quiet demeanor, he was highly admired and respected by his colleagues and patients. He applied his extensive knowledge of sensory physiological research to his clinical experiences. As an invited speaker, he gave over 125 lectures or demonstrations on ocular motility. After his untimely death, his Lectures on Motor Anomalies were compiled and published. His research publications and teaching have had a longstanding and profound influence.
His name is associated with several associations. In 1986, the Bielschowsky Gesellschaft (Society) was founded in Germany to promote research in strabismus and neuroophthalmology, and the International Strabismus Association (ISA) has a Bielschowsky Lecture at each congress.