Helmcken was born in 1824 in London, England where, as a youth, he apprenticed to a chemist and druggist and developed an interest in medicine. He served as surgeon on board a Hudson's Bay Company vessel before being admitted as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1848. The following year he was appointed to a five year term as surgeon and clerk for the Company. He arrived on Vancouver Island, which was to be his home for the next seventy years, on March 25, 1850 aboard the Norman Morison. Shortly afterward, at the request of Governor Blanshard, he served as a magistrate at Fort Rupert where, in the summer of 1850, he was sent to settle a complex dispute involving disgruntled coal-miners, several unfamiliar native communities and deserters. Helmcken felt powerless in the chaotic situation which culminated in the deaths of three deserters and the destruction of two native villages. Years later he wrote that dissention in the fort was "increased by drunkenness caused by the liquors obtained from the England. Anarchy reigned—hell and earth seemed mingled—mutiny within, a couple of thousand excited Indians without and around". Nevertheless, he returned to Victoria and in 1852, he and Cecilia, eldest daughter of James Douglas were married. Helmcken's long involvement in Vancouver Island political life was initiated in 1856 when he was elected Speaker in the first Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island. He went on to be deeply involved in the debates surrounding the union of the Colony of Vancouver Island with British Columbia as well as with those concerning British Columbia's entry into Confederation with Canada. While his political life prospered his family life suffered through the deaths of three of seven infant children followed by the death of Cecilia due to pneumonia in 1865. In later life Helmcken's attentions returned to medicine and he was active on the board of the Royal Jubilee Hospital, and in 1875 laid the cornerstone of St. Joseph's Hospital before being elected the first president of the British Columbia Medical Society in 1885. He died in Victoria in 1920.