Professor Abraham Van Helsing, a fictional character from the 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula, is an aged polymath Dutch doctor with a wide range of interests and accomplishments, partly attested by the string of letters that follows his name: "MD, D.Ph., D.Litt., etc.", indicating a wealth of experience, education and expertise. The character is best known through many adaptations of the story as a vampire hunter and the archenemy of Count Dracula, and the prototypical and the archetypical parapsychologist in subsequent works of paranormal fiction.
In the novel, Professor Van Helsing is called in by his former student, John Seward, to assist with the mysterious illness of Lucy Westenra. Van Helsing's friendship with Seward is based in part upon an unknown prior event in which Van Helsing suffered a grievous wound, and Seward saved his life by sucking out the gangrene. It is Van Helsing who first realizes that Lucy is the victim of a vampire, and he guides Seward and his friends in their efforts to save Lucy.
According to Leonard Wolf's annotations to the novel, Van Helsing had a son who died. Van Helsing says that his son, had he lived, would have had a similar appearance to Lucy's suitor Arthur Holmwood. Consequently, Van Helsing developed a particular fondness for Holmwood. Van Helsing's wife went insane from grief after their son's death, but as a Catholic, he refuses to divorce her ("with my poor wife dead to me, but alive by Church's law, though no wits, all gone, even I, who am faithful husband to this now-no-wife").
Van Helsing is one of the few characters in the novel who is fully physically described in one place. In chapter 14, Mina Harker describes him as:
a man of medium height, strongly built, with his shoulders set back over a broad, deep chest and a neck well balanced on the trunk as the head is on the neck. The poise of the head strikes me at once as indicative of thought and power. The head is noble, well-sized, broad, and large behind the ears. The face, clean-shaven, shows a hard, square chin, a large resolute, mobile mouth, a good-sized nose, rather straight, but with quick, sensitive nostrils, that seem to broaden as the big bushy brows come down and the mouth tightens. The forehead is broad and fine, rising at first almost straight and then sloping back above two bumps or ridges wide apart, such a forehead that the reddish hair cannot possibly tumble over it, but falls naturally back and to the sides. Big, dark blue eyes are set widely apart and are quick and tender or stern with the man's moods.
Van Helsing's personality is described by John Seward, his former student, thus:
He is a seemingly arbitrary man, this is because he knows what he is talking about better than anyone else. He is a philosopher and a metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day, and he has, I believe, an absolutely open mind. This, with an iron nerve, a temper of the ice-brook, and indomitable resolution, self-command, and toleration exalted from virtues to blessings, and the kindliest and truest heart that beats, these form his equipment for the noble work that he is doing for mankind, work both in theory and practice, for his views are as wide as his all-embracing sympathy.
In the novel, Van Helsing is described as having what is apparently a thick foreign accent, in that he speaks in broken English and he uses German phrases such as "Mein Gott" (English: My God).
Adaptations of the novel have tended to play up Van Helsing's role as a vampire expert, sometimes to the extent that it is depicted as his major occupation. In the novel, however, Dr. Seward requests Van Helsing's assistance simply because Lucy's affliction has him baffled and Van Helsing "knows as much about obscure diseases as anyone in the world".
Count Dracula, having acquired ownership of the Carfax estate near London through solicitor Jonathan Harker, moves to the estate and begins menacing England. His victims include Lucy Westenra, who is on holiday in Whitby. The aristocratic girl has suitors such as John Seward, Arthur Holmwood, and Quincey Morris, and has a best friend in Mina Murray, Harker's fiancée. Seward, who works as a doctor in an insane asylum – where one of the patients, the incurably mad Renfield, has a psychic connection to Dracula – contacts Professor Van Helsing about Lucy's peculiar condition. Van Helsing, recognizing marks upon her neck, eventually deduces that she has been losing blood from a vampire bite. He administers multiple blood transfusions. Van Helsing, Seward, and Arthur each donate blood to her, but each night she continues to lose blood. He prescribes her garlic, makes a necklace of garlic flowers for her, and hangs garlic about her room. He also gives her a crucifix to wear around her neck. Lucy's demise was brought by her mother, who cleared the room of garlic and opened the window for fresh air; a servant had stolen the gold crucifix. Lucy dies and after the funeral returns as a vampire, seeking out children. Eventually, Van Helsing, Arthur, Morris and Seward free the undead Lucy from her vampiric curse: Arthur uses a hammer to drive the stake through her heart and Van Helsing cuts off her head and puts garlic in her mouth.
Mina, now married to Harker, becomes increasingly worried about his brain fever. Van Helsing reviews his journal and Harker's health returns when he learns that his experiences in Transylvania were real. Mina discovers that various letters and accounts provide further intelligence on Dracula's movements, and shares these with Harker, Seward, Morris, and Van Helsing. They learn that Dracula's residence in Carfax is near Seward's, and Van Helsing's research reveals Dracula's weaknesses and strengths. Seward and Van Helsing also write to a university acquaintance to aid in further research. Staying at Seward's residence to better plan strategies in their efforts to deal with Dracula, they have frequent meetings and each member is assigned duties. At a later meeting a bat is seen at a window.
To destroy Dracula and prevent further spread of evil, the party enters his estate at Carfax and as a group encounters him for the first time. They discover that he has been purchasing properties in and around London, with plans to distribute 50 boxes of Transylvanian earth to them, used as graves so each property would become a safe lair. They visit these lairs and place sacramental bread in the boxes of the earth to "sterilize" them, preventing Dracula from further using them. Dracula entices Renfield to invite him into Seward's residence. Renfield is found critically injured by Seward and Van Helsing who operate on him, and Renfield informs them that Dracula went to see Mina. They go to Mina's room and find Harker hypnotized while Dracula is giving Mina the 'Vampire's Baptism of Blood', cursing her and the group for plotting against him. The party uses sacred items to repel Dracula, who flees into a different room as a vapor. Dracula then destroys all the texts Mina had produced, except for one which was hidden, and breaks Renfield's neck before leaving.
Van Helsing places a wafer of sacramental bread upon Mina's forehead to bless her but it burns her flesh, leaving a scar. Mina, feeling that she is now connected with Dracula, asks Van Helsing to hypnotize her before dawn, the only time she feels she could freely speak. Through this hypnosis they learn that Mina has a telepathic link with Dracula, that she could tell everything he hears and feels, which could be used to track his movements. Mina agrees that any plans should be kept from her for fear that Dracula could read her thoughts. The group has additional encounters with Dracula as they continue to search for his residences throughout London and sterilize the boxes. Learning that his final grave is aboard a boat, Van Helsing deduces that Dracula is fleeing back to his castle.
When the party pursues Dracula to Transylvania, they split into groups. While Mina and Van Helsing travel straight to Dracula's castle, the others attempt to ambush the boat on which Dracula is a passenger. Van Helsing's influence over Mina diminishes each day, and her behavior changes as she sleeps more during the day, loses her appetite for food, and ceases to write in her journal. He finds that she cannot cross a circle of crumbled sacramental bread. Later, Dracula's vampiric wives approach their camp but they too are unable to cross into the circle of bread. Failing at their attempts to lure Van Helsing and Mina out of the circle, they flee back to Dracula's castle just before sunrise. Van Helsing binds Mina at a cave to keep her from danger as he goes into Dracula's castle to kill the vampires.
As Van Helsing runs through the castle searching its rooms, he finds Dracula's empty tomb and the three female vampires he saw earlier. He begins to do his operation on the first vampire but finds himself entranced by her beauty and unable to bring himself to harm her. In his feelings of enchantment, he even contemplates love for her. He is broken out of this enchantment when he hears a "soul wail" from Mina, awakening him. He proceeds to drive stakes into their hearts and sever their heads, one by one.
Van Helsing returns to Mina and they see the rest of their party as they chase a group of gypsies down the Borgo Pass and corner them. Armed with knives and firearms they overtake the gypsies and open the final box of Dracula; Jonathan Harker brings his Kukri knife down on Dracula's throat as the bowie knife of Quincey Morris simultaneously impales Dracula's heart in the final moments of daylight. At this moment Dracula's body crumbles to dust. After the struggle, Quincey is seen to have been fatally wounded.
Six years later, Van Helsing takes a grandfatherly role in regard to the young Quincey Harker, Jonathan and Mina's son.