Schirmer was born in 1864 in Greifswald, Germany. He studied at a handful of universities throughout Germany and eventually followed in his father's footsteps to become the Chair of Ophthalmology in Greifswald. Schirmer made a great number of contributions to ophthalmology. He worked with cataracts, corneal complications, rosacea keratitis and sympathetic ophthalmitis. Schirmer is best known for his self-named Schirmer test. This test estimates lacrimation by placing sterile papers between the lower lid and the globe and measuring the moist area.
In 1909, Schirmer moved to New York and worked on the staff of several prominent hospitals