Franciscus Donders

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Franciscus Cornelis Donders
Franciscus Cornelis Donders
Born27 May 1818
Died24 March 1889(1889-03-24) (aged 70)
Utrecht, Netherlands
Known forEye disease
Scientific career
InstitutionsUtrecht University

Franciscus (Franz) Cornelius Donders FRS FRSE (27 May 1818 – 24 March 1889) was a Dutch ophthalmologist. During his career, he was a professor of physiology in Utrecht, and was internationally regarded as an authority on eye diseases, directing the Netherlands Hospital for Eye Patients. Along with Graefe and Helmholtz, he was one of the primary founders of scientific ophthalmology.


He was born in Tilburg, the son of Jan Franz Donders and Agnes Elizabeth Hegh. He was educated at Duizel School and seminaries in both Tilburg and Boxmeer.[1]

By the age of seventeen, Franciscus Donders had started studying medicine in the School of Military in Utrecht. It was here that he discovered his passion for experimental study, specifically in the field of chemistry. By the age of twenty-two he entered the junior military in order to become a surgeon [2] For several years, the young Donders studied at the Royal Dutch Hospital for Military Medicine in Utrecht, then earning his M.D. in 1840 from the University of Leiden. Following a stint as a medical officer in the Hague, in 1842 he was appointed as a lecturer in physiology and anatomy at the Utrecht military medical school. Because of his accomplishments in his studies, he made good connections that would allow for him to study his own scientific work. Soon after doing that he became a Professor for Anatomy and Physiology in 1847 at Utrecht University.[3] In 1847, he became an associate professor at Utrecht University and, in 1862, attained a full professorship in physiology.[4] In 1847, he became correspondent of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands, when that became the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences; in 1851, he joined as member.[5] Donders knew that textbook knowledge had a lot to offer the field of cognition, but he also knew that it would be enhanced and hold more validity if experiments were involved. Donders was the first to discover that a lot of time is needed for an abstract mental process to occur.[6]

He is known for his work and research of eye disease and was among the first practitioners of the ophthalmoscope.[7] He is credited with invention of an impression tonometer (1862),[8] and for introduction of prismatic and cylindrical lenses for treatment of astigmatism (1860).[9]

Donders also was the first to use differences in human reaction time to infer differences in cognitive processing. He tested both simple reaction time and choice reaction time, finding that simple reaction was faster.[10] This concept is now one of the central tenets of cognitive psychology – while mental chronometry is not a topic in itself, it is one of the most common tools used for making inferences about processes such as learning, memory, and attention. Using reaction time, Donders constructed what is known as reaction time, and three distinct ways to analyze it. The common version was task A (simple). When Donders’s conducted task A, he stimulated the participant’s foot in order to measure the fastest hand reaction. Participants were made known ahead of time that they would be measuring how fast the response of their hand was (which enabled them to better sense the stimulation). Donder’s task B (choice) consisted of stimulation in the right hand and measuring the response of the right foot. This task had the same goals as task A; On top of that the subject’s ability to discriminate the stimulus and point out the stimulus was also measured and requires the intervention of a response decision. The third distinct task was known as the C task (Go/No-go task) [11] To analyze this task Donder stimulated the both feet of participants. Participants were asked to respond with their right hand when they felt stimulation in the right foot, but not to do the same with the left side. This task was also designed to measure the participants ability to detect stimuli and offer the requested response. Donders’s task C cannot be performed without intervention of stimulus discrimination occurring within the sensory and motor process. He represents the durations of these processes labeling them as a-, b- and c- methods (example a/-a = eat/don’t eat) In order to utilize these methods Donders used the speech repetition task [12] Different patterns were used for different methods. The pattern of reaction time is a<c<b. Donders taught that c-a can find the discrimination duration, and that b-c can find the choice duration. When learning to measure the speed of thought, Franciscus Donders was not keen of using electromagnetism to measure. He claimed that as the intensity changed, so would the results. Instead he looked at devices such as the phonautograph to graph out the speed of human speech.[13] Donders founded the Nederlands Gasthuis voor Behoeftige en Minvermogende Ooglijders (in short: Ooglijdersgasthuis) – the Netherlands Hospital for Necessitous Eye-Patients in 1858. His first associate was Herman Snellen.[14] In 1864, he published the highly acclaimed "On the anomalies of accommodation and refraction of the eye".[15] This book was written in 1864 and focused on separated errors of refraction and accommodation. The publication of this book enabled the vending of eye glass fittings to be the service of ophthalmology. "Ophthalmology is a branch of medicine and surgery which deals with the diagnosis and treatment of eye disorders."

Statue of F. C. Donders in Utrecht

Franciscus Donders spent a lot of time studying and researching biology and cognition. Only a little amount of his time was spent studying ophthalmology.[16] Although little, its impact was the parent of many concepts (that still exist) in the field of ophthalmology. He introduced subjects such as refraction, astigmatism, accommodation, ametropia, hypermetropia, aphakia, presbyopia, convergence, and squint. He is also responsible for the formula that equates the sharpness of one’s vision. It was in 1864 when Donders’s was able to introduce accommodation of the Eye, and refraction. Donders taught that the retina uses rays in order to come together. This occurs behind the retina and is what allows us to perceive nearby objects. Once those rays have been perceived they are then able to bring more rays into the retina. This is known as the power of accommodation of the eye. This was significant because it created what is now known as scientific Ophthalmology.[17] Of the concepts he introduced, the most important is Donder’s Law.[18] His name is associated with "Donders' law", which states that "the rotation of the eyeball is determined by the distance of the object from the median plane and the line of the horizon".[19] It contains 3 specific dimensions that orientate the eye for whichever way it looks. It also states that the orientation of the eye has no correlation with the starting point.[20] If the eye is constantly looking at the same thing, the orientation of the eye will also remain the same. The law assures that the eye focuses on far away targets (with an upright head) and adapts to a special angle for each glaze that occurs; even though there are numerous ways eyes could position. Other contributions to the field of ophthalmology include: the translation of German textbooks to Dutch, the clinical application within the field, acknowledgment of glaucoma and its subtypes, analysis of brain function, and the reduced eye model.[21]

He is also well recognized in the dental community for naming the "space of Donders", the space between the dorsum of the tongue and the hard palate when the mandible is at rest.[22]

He died in Utrecht.


He married twice: first in 1845 to Ernestine Zimmerman (d.1887); secondly, in 1888 to Abrahamine Arnolda Louisa Hubrecht.[23]


  1. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X.
  2. ^ Roper-Hall. "Historical Vignette: Franciscus Cornelis Donders (1818–1889): Dutch Biologist, Physiologist, and Ophthalmologist". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. ^ Roelofs (2018). "One hundred fifty years after Donders: Insights from unpublished data, a replication, and modeling of his reaction times": 223–228. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ Picture, biography, bibliography and digitized sources in the Virtual Laboratory of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
  5. ^ "Franciscus Cornelis Donders (1818 - 1889)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. 7 July 2023.
  6. ^ Greenwood, J.D (1999). "Understanding the "cognitive revolution"". Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences: 35.
  7. ^ Gijn J van; Gijselhart JP (2011). "[Franciscus Donders (1818-1889): ophthalmologist and physiologist]". Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde (in Dutch). 155: A1979. PMID 21291574.
  8. ^ Instruments of science: an historical encyclopedia edited by Robert Bud, Deborah Jean Warner
  9. ^ Internet Archive An Introduction to the history of medicine by Fielding Hudson Garrison
  10. ^ Goldstein, E. B. Cognitive psychology, connecting mind, research, and everyday experience. Wadsworth Pub Co, 2010. Print.
  11. ^ Donders, Franciscus. "Accommodation and refraction of the eye". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  12. ^ Vidal, F.; Burle, B.; Grapperon, J.; Hasbroucq, T. (2011). "Wiley Online Library". Psychophysiology. 48 (9): 1242–51. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.2011.01186.x. PMID 21342207.
  13. ^ Thurtell, M.J (2 December 2012). "Three-dimensional kinematics of saccadic and pursuit eye movements in humans: Relationship between Donders' and Listing's laws". Vision Research. 60: 7–15. doi:10.1016/j.visres.2012.02.012. PMC 3345270. PMID 22406307.
  14. ^ den Tonkelaar e.a. 1996, p. 13
  15. ^ Google Books On the anomalies of accommodation and refraction of the eye
  16. ^ Opstal, A.J (2018). "200 years Franciscus Cornelis Donders". Strabismus. 26 (4): 159–162. doi:10.1080/09273972.2018.1551770. PMC 6751082. PMID 31534304.
  17. ^ Schmidgen, H (1850). "Of frogs and men: The origins of psychophysiological time experiments". Endeavour. 26.
  18. ^ Donders, Franciscus. Accommodation and refraction of the eye. Krieger Pub.
  19. ^ Donders' law Archived 16 February 2017 at the Wayback Machine Mondofacto
  20. ^ "What is Donders' Law?".
  21. ^ "Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 14: 321–331. 1878. JSTOR 25138541.
  22. ^ Stedman's Medical Eponyms by Thomas Lathrop Stedman
  23. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X.
  • Newell, F W (June 1989), "Franciscus Cornelis Donders (1818-1889).", American Journal of Ophthalmology (published 15 June 1989), 107 (6): 691–3, ISSN 0002-9394, PMID 2658623
  • Duke-Elder, S (February 1959), "Franciscus Cornelis Donders", The British Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 65–8, doi:10.1136/bjo.43.2.65, PMC 509756, PMID 13628947
  • ten DOESSCHATE, G (1951), "[The latest works of Franciscus Cornelis Donders.]", Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde (published 7 April 1951), vol. 95, no. 14, pp. 1096–7, PMID 14843224
  • TEN DOESSCHATE, G (1951), "[The personality of Franciscus Cornelis Donders.]", Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde (published 17 November 1951), vol. 95, no. 46, pp. 3421–41, PMID 14919660
  • den Tonkelaar, Isolde, Harold E. Henkes and Gijsbert K. van Leersum (1996) - Eye and instruments : Nineteenth-century ophthalmological instruments in the Netherlands. Amsterdam : Batavian Lion. ISBN 90 6707 400 4. 304 pgs.

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