He studied medicine in Greifswald, Königsberg, Marburg, and Giessen, obtaining his doctorate at the University of Giessen in 1877. Afterwards, he worked as a prosector at Leipzig, and in 1887 became a professor (extraordinary) of anatomy (1887). He died in Hubertusburg in 1900 from a nervous disorder.
Altmann is known for his research involving cell theory and structure. In his analysis of animal cells, he investigated small granules located in the cell's protoplasm. He named the particles- "bioblasts", which he postulated were elementary organisms that had metabolic and genetic autonomy. Today, Altmann's "bioblasts" are known as mitochondria. In 1890, Altmann published his findings in Die Elementarorganismen (The Elementary Organism), a treatise that was met with skepticism by many in the scientific community.
He is credited for coining the term "nucleic acid", in exchange for Friedrich Miescher's (1844-1895) "nuclein", when it was demonstrated that nuclein had acidic properties. Altmann also developed an histological stain that consists of picric acid, aniline, and acid fuchsin, and is used for staining mitochondria crimson against a yellow background.
Literary works 
- Über Nucleinsäuren. Archiv für Anatomie und Physiologie. Physiologische Abteilung. Leipzig, 1889, 524-536.
- Zur Geschichte der Zelltheorien (The History of Cell Theories) . Ein Vortrag. Leipzig, 1889.
- Die Elementarorganismen, 1890.
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