Friedrich Wilhelm Ernst Albrecht von Graefe has become known as the father of modern ophthalmology.
Albrecht’s father, Carl Ferdinand von Graefe, was a famous German surgeon and a general in the Prussian army. Young von Graefe became an orphan at age 12, however, as a gifted student, he was able to follow in his father’s footsteps by enrolling in medical school at the University of Berlin in 1843 when he was 15. He graduated four years later and then spent most of the next three years travelling across Europe studying and working with some of the leading ophthalmologists of that period.
His experiences allowed von Graefe to return to Berlin where he opened his first clinic in November, 1850. His talent underpinned the rapid growth of this clinic and in the first year he treated nearly 2,000 patients. He treated poor patients for free.
In the search for better ways to diagnose and treat his patients von Graefe designed new instruments including one of the first devices used to measure intraocular pressure. As his skills and knowledge grew he moved to larger clinic and was soon treating over 10,000 patients a year.
In January 1854, at the age of 26, von Graefe published the first issue of his ophthalmologic journal Archiv fur Ophthalmologie. Remarkably this journal is still published today under the title Graefe’s Archive for Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology. Von Graefe went onto to contribute to other journals, and in 1857 he helped established the Deutsche Ophthalmologische Gesellschaft which was the world’s first ophthalmic society. Today the society sponsors the Graefe medal for achievements in the field of ophthalmology
Recognition of von Graefe’s achievements was also given by the hundreds of students who he trained. In 1857 von Graefe reached the peak of his career when he reported a cure for glaucoma using iridectomy which is a procedure to remove part of the iris.
In 1861 he became engaged to Anna, Countess Knuth. They married in 1862 and went on to have five children. Von Graefe also contracted acute tuberculous pleurisy in 1861. This did not slow him down and his work load continued to grow. Eventually the disease spread to his lungs and throat but he could continue to work by using morphine to control the pain. However, he eventually succumbed to the disease and died on July 20, 1870 at the age of 42, his wife died two years later at the age of 30.
His image lives on in a statue that was erected by the Berlin Medical Society in 1882 in front of the Charité Hospital, and a Graefe Museum in the Heidelberg eye clinic.