Nobel laureate- Allvar Gullstrand

Hello guys,

Here I am with another interesting article in the category Today in History on the one and only Ophthalmologist who has been awarded Nobel prize for Ophthalmology related research. Hope you have guessed it by now.

Allvar Gullstrand
This photograph of Allvar Gullstrand with his corneal microscope is reproduced from the British Journal of Ophthalmology 2010; 94:826

Yes, It’s Allvar Gullstrand and it’s his birthday. A Swedish Ophthalmologist and a self-taught mathematician.  Slit-lamp invented by him is the most common inventions of him which every student must have known by now. When I sat down to write this article, I have found tons of information online. So, I will just try to make things as simple as possible.

Other Ophthalmologists who got Nobel prize in the fields other than Ophthalmology include Fritz Pregl, an Austrian ophthalmologist who deserted the eye for analytical chemistry, received in Chemistry in 1923. Walter Hess, a Swiss ophthalmologist and physiologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1949 for his work on autonomic control by the hypothalamus.


Born on  5 June 1862 in Landskrona, a small town in southern Sweden. He was the eldest son of a respected physician, Pehr Alfred Gullstrand and Sofia Mathilda. A brilliant mathematics teacher in this town managed to teach him with university-level mathematics. He taught him infinitesimal calculus and other advanced mathematical procedures. Although he was interested in engineering, his physician father persuaded him to study medicine by hiring him as a medical assistant for the summer.

He got married to Signe Christine Breitholtz in 1885, with whom he had a daughter (Esther Gisela). Regrettably, the girl died from diphtheria when she was less than 3 years old. He went to Uppsala to study medicine. He moved to Vienna for a year in 1885 and returned to complete his training in Stockholm where he graduated in 1888.

In 1891 he was appointed lecturer in ophthalmology, served on the Swedish Medical Board, and in 1894 he became the first professor of ophthalmology at Uppsala, a post he held until 1913. From 1914 he held a professorship in physical and physiological optics (a personal chair) and retired in 1927.  Gullstrand died from a cerebral haemorrhage on 30 July 1930.

As a scientist:


He presented the earliest version of the lamp as an illuminator of the eye in 1911, but it was not until 1916 that the slit lamp was truly realised. It was based on the electric bulb patented by Walter Nernst.  The luminous filament was focussed upon a slit and the image thus produced provided a rectangular beam which could be brought to a sharp focus on the eye by an aplanatic lens that produced maximal illumination. When the Nernst bulb was no longer available after World War I, nitrogen bulbs with a spiral filament gave trouble until Alfred Vogt (1879–1943) introduced a system whereby the filament was focussed on the posterior surface of the illuminating (aplanatic) lens and the slit became a stop diaphragm to control the size of the beam and form a uniform field of light. Innovations and improvements have increased the versatility of the slit lamp but the principle underlying all the models of illumination goes back to Gullstrand. As a diagnostic tool, the slit lamp is in universal use. When combined with the binocular corneal microscope, developed by Siegfried Czapski (1861–1907) for the Zeiss factory in Jena, the slit lamp made elucidation of the finer changes in internal ocular disease accessible to every ophthalmologist.


He found that intracapsular accommodation mechanism characterised mainly by the fact that during the accommodation the particles in the equatorial plane are displaced in the axipetal direction, the extent increasing with their proximity to the axis, further by the fact that the zonula attachment on the anterior lens surface is displaced in the axipetal direction, and finally by the fact that the displacement occurs to different extents along various radii of the lens. Thus, the dioptric investigation of the lens in accommodation has resulted in finding out the accommodative variations that occur in the substance of the lens. This clearly establishes the connection between structure and variation of total index of the lens during accommodation

Other achievements:

  • The first formulation of his geometric insight is given in his ‘Contributions to the Theory of Astigmatism’ (1890)  and is elaborated in ‘General Theory of Monochromatic Aberrations. Their immediate significance for Ophthalmology’ (1896)
  • These results are collected together in his contribution to the third edition of Helmholtz’s ‘Handbook of physiological optics’ (1909)
  • His doctoral thesis ‘A Contribution to the Theory of Astigmatism’, published in 1890, contained the seeds of the work in subsequent years for which he is universally remembered.
  • Gullstrand lens:

    An approximately +14D lens with an aspherical surface and 50 mm in diameter (Fig. 9), designed by Allvar Gull- strand and produced by the Carl Zeiss company from about 1911.

  • Gullstrand schematic eye:

    The exact schematic eye was based on his very precise measurements on the human eye. He gave the exact position of the cardinal planes of the optical system of the eye

  • Gullstrand’s reflexless ophthalmoscope:

    An ophthalmoscope where the illuminating light bundle passes through one part of the pupil while the reflected light rays pass through different parts.

  • Gullstrand handheld ophthalmoscope:

    Although Gullstrand had high hopes for this instrument, designed according to the same principles as his stationary ophthalmoscope, it turned out to be difficult to use and was soon superseded by other designs

Allvar Gullstrand and Einstein:

Allvar Gullstrand, then a member of the Nobel Committee for physics, forcefully argued against Einstein as a Nobel Laureate, maintaining that his theory was only a matter of unproven belief and not ‘of greatest utility for mankind’. After the war, with successful supporting measurements, pressure mounted on the committee to give Einstein the prize. At this time, Einstein’s relativity theory was widely discussed and contested, even to the level where it entered national and international public politics. The theory was regarded as incomplete by Gullstrand and others. Gullstrand’s good friend and colleague at the physics department in Uppsala, C. W. Oseen, was also convinced that Einstein should have a Nobel Prize. Because of Niels Bohr’s successful application of Einstein’s theories in his work solidly verified by physical measurements.

Gullstrand finally had to admit that Einstein’s laws for the photoelectric effect were worthy of the Nobel Prize. He was awarded in 1922.  At the same time, Niels Bohr was awarded the physics prize. It was noted that Einstein did not receive the prize for his theories on relativity. This is the only time a note was published about what the prize was not awarded for.