Wolfgang Helfrich

Wolfgang Helfrich was born on March 26, 1932 in München. He studied Physics at the Universities of Göttingen, München and Tübingen from 1951 to 1958, and obtained his doctoral degree at the Technical University of München in 1961. After research stays in München, at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa, and the RCA Laboratories at Princeton, Wolfgang Helfrich habilitated in 1967 in München on space-charge-limited and volume-controlled currents in organic crystals. 

In 1967, Wolfgang Helfrich returned to RCA Laboratories and began to work on liquid crystals. In 1970, he joined Hoffmann-LaRoche Laboratories in Basel and built the first twisted-nematic liquid-crystal electro-optical display with Martin Schadt. Wolfgang Helfrich has received numerous prizes for this achievement, among them the Draper Prize of the National Academy of Engineering, USA, in 2012 for the “engineering development of the Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) that is utilized in billions of consumer and professional devices”.

In 1973, Wolfgang Helfrich published the first complete description of the bending energy of membranes [1], and accepted a professorship at the Free University Berlin. In 1978, he set up the first theory of the steric repulsion of membranes caused by shape fluctuations [2]. In the 1970s and following decades, Wolfgang Helfrich made numerous theoretical and experimental contributions to membrane physics, in particular on vesicle shapes, membrane shape fluctuations, and the effect of electric fields on vesicles. In 1993, he received the Ostwald Prize of the German Kolloidgesellschaft. Wolfgang Helfrich also began to look for a superstructure of phospholipid membranes, finding by electron microscopy an irregular “egg carton” and thin modulated membrane tubes [3]. They were explained in terms of higher-order bending elasticity. 

[1] W. Helfrich. Elastic properties of lipid bilayers: Theory and possible experiments. Z. Naturforsch. 28c, 693 (1973).
[2] W. Helfrich. Steric interactions of fluid membranes in multilayer systems. Z. Naturforsch. 33a, 305 (1978).
[3] B. Klösgen and W. Helfrich. Cryo-transmission electron microscopy of a superstructure of fluid dioleoylphosphatidylcholine (DOPC) membranes. Biophys. J. 73, 3016 (1997).