He studied medicine at several universities including the University of Greifswald. In 1896 he attained the chair of ophthalmology at Greifswald, a position earlier held by this father, Rudolf Schirmer (1831-1896). Later he was a professor of ophthalmology at Kiel and Strasbourg, and in 1909 emigrated to New York, where he worked in several hospitals including the Herman Knapp Memorial Eye Hospital.
Schirmer provided a comprehensive description involving the pathology of sympathetic ophthalmia, a detailed study of rosacea keratitis, and extensive research concerning the physiology and anatomy of the eye's lacrimal apparatus. His work with ophthalmia and the lacrimal system were published in the second edition of the Graefe-Saemisch textbook of ophthalmology- Handbuch der gesamten Augenheilkunde.
Schirmer is remembered today for the eponymous "Schirmer test", which is a method used to measure the eye's lacrimal secretion with absorbent paper.
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