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Rudolf Virchow


Rudolf Ludwig Karl Virchow (October 13, 1821, Schivelbein (Pomerania) - September 5, 1902, Berlin) was a German doctor, anthropologist, public health activist, pathologist, prehistorian, biologist and politician. He is referred to as the "Father of Pathology".


Scientific Career

From a farming family of relatively modest means, Virchow studied medicine in Berlin at the military academy of Prussia on a scholarship. When he graduated in 1842 he went to serve as Robert Froriep's assistant at the Berlin Charité rather than the expected military service. He was employed as an intern at Charité Hospital in Berlin but was suspended on March 31, 1849 because of his liberal view of the German government. Due to political reasons, he moved to Würzburg two years later, where he worked on anatomy. In 1856, he returned to Berlin as a professor of anatomic pathology (a chair created just for him) at Berlin University and the Berlin Charité where he had previously worked as Froriep's assistant. One of his major contributions to German medical education was to encourage the use of microscopes by medical students and was known for constantly urging his students to 'think microscopically'. The campus where this Charité hospital is located is named after him, the Campus Virchow Klinikum.

Virchow is credited with multiple significant discoveries. He is cited as the first to recognize leukemia. However, he is perhaps best known for his theory Omnis cellula e cellula ("every cell originates from another existing cell like it.") which he published in 1858. (The epigram was actually coined by François-Vincent Raspail but popularized by Virchow). It is a rejection of the concept of spontaneous generation, which held that organisms could arise from non-living matter. It was believed, for example, that maggots could sponteneously appear in decaying meat; Francesco Redi carried out experiments which disproved this. Redi's work gave rise to the maxim Omne vivum ex ovo ("every living thing comes from a living thing"), Virchow (and his predecessors) extended this to state that the only source for a living cell was another living cell.

Another significant credit relates to the discovery, made approximately simultaneously by Virchow and Charles Emile Troisier, that an enlarged left supra-clavicular node is one of the earliest signs of gastrointestinal malignancy, commonly of the stomach, or less commonly, lung cancer. This has become known as Virchow's node and simultaneously Troisier's sign.

Virchow is also famous for elucidating the mechanism of pulmonary thromboembolism, coining the term embolism. He noted that blood clots in the pulmonary artery originate first from venous thrombi, stating: "The detachment of larger or smaller fragments from the end of the softening thrombus which are carried along by the current of blood and driven into remote vessels. This gives rise to the very frequent process on which I have bestowed the name of Embolia." Related to this research, Virchow described the factors contributing to venous thrombosis, Virchow's triad.

Furthermore, Virchow founded the medical disciplines of cellular pathology, comparative pathology (comparison of diseases common to humans and animals). His very innovative work may be viewed as sitting between that of Morgagni whose work Virchow studied, and that of Paul Ehrlich, who studied at the Charité while Virchow was developing microscopic pathology there.


In 1869 he founded the Society for anthropology, ethnology and prehistory (Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte) which was very influential in coordinating and intensifying German archaeological research. In 1885 he launched a study of craniometry, which gave surprising results according to contemporary scientific racist theories on the "Aryan race", leading him to denounce the "Nordic mysticism" in the 1885 Anthropology Congress in Karlsruhe. Josef Kollmann , a collaborator of Virchow, stated in the same congress that the people of Europe, be them German, Italian, English or French, belonged to a "mixture of various races," furthermore declaring that the "results of craniology" led to "struggle against any theory concerning the superiority of this or that European race" on others [1].

In 1892 he was awarded the Copley Medal.

He was a very prolific writer. Some of his works are:

  • Mittelheilungen über die Typhus-Epidemie, (1848)
  • Die Cellularpathologie, (1858), English translation, (1860)
  • Handbuch Media:der speciellen Pathologie und Therapie, (1854-62)
  • Vorlesungen über Pathologie, (1862-72)
  • Die krankhaften Geschwülste, (1863-67)
  • Gegen den Antisemitismus, (1880)

He also developed a standard method of autopsy procedure, named for him, that is still one of the two main techniques used today. More than a laboratory physician, Virchow was an impassioned advocate for social and political reform, stating that physicians should act as "attorneys for the poor." His views are evident in his "Report on the Typhus Outbreak of Upper Silesia (1848),"writing that the outbreak could not be solved by treating individual patients with drugs or with minor changes in food, housing, or clothing laws, but only through radical action to promote the advancement of an entire population. [1] He is widely regarded as a pioneer of social medicine. [2]

He is frequently quoted by the humanitarian physician Paul Farmer, who also won the Society for Medical Anthropology's Rudolph Virchow Award. Farmer states: "Virchow had a comprehensive vision. Pathology, social medicine, politics, anthropology."[3]

Political career

Virchow also worked as a politician (member of the Berlin City Council, the Prussian parliament since 1861, German Reichstag 1880-1893) to improve the health care conditions for the Berlin citizens, namely working towards modern water and sewer systems. Virchow is also credited with the founding of "social medicine", frequently focusing on the fact that disease is never purely biological, but often, socially derived. As a co-founder and member of the liberal party (Deutschen Fortschrittspartei) he was an important political antagonist of Bismarck.

One area where he co-operated with Bismarck was in the Kulturkampf, the anti-clerical campaign against the Catholic Church[2] claiming that the anti-clerical laws bore "the character of a great struggle in the interest of humanity".[3]. It was during the discussion of Falk’s May Laws (Maigesetze) that Virchow first used the term [4]

Virchow was respected in masonic circles[5], and according to one source[6] may have been a freemason, though no official record of this has been found.

The Society for Medical Anthropology gives an annual award in Virchow's name, Rudolph Virchow Award.


  1. ^ Andrea Orsucci, "Ariani, indogermani, stirpi mediterranee: aspetti del dibattito sulle razze europee (1870-1914), Cromohs, 1998 (Italian)
  2. ^ "This anti-Catholic crusade was also taken up by the Progressives, especially Rudolf Virchow, though Richter himself was tepid in his occasional support." Authentic German Liberalism of the 19th Century by Ralph Raico
  3. ^ "The term came into use in 1873, when the scientist and Prussian liberal statesman Rudolf Virchow declared that the battle with the Roman Catholics was assuming “the character of a great struggle in the interest of humanity.”" from Kulturkampf. (2006). Britannica Concise Encyclopedia . Retrieved March 25, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica
  4. ^ A leading German school teacher, Rudolf Virchow, characterized Bismarck's struggle with the Catholic Church as a Kulturkampf - a fight for culture - by which Virchow meant a fight for liberal, rational principles against the dead weight of medieval traditionalism, obscurantism, and authoritarianism." from The Triumph of Civilization by Norman D. Livergood and "Kulturkampf \Kul*tur"kampf`\, n. [G., fr. kultur, cultur, culture + kampf fight.] (Ger. Hist.) Lit., culture war; - a name, originating with Virchow (1821 - 1902), given to a struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the German government" Kulturkampf in
  5. ^ "Rizal's Berlin associates, or perhaps the word "patrons" would give their relation better, were men as esteemed in Masonry as they were eminent in the scientific world--Virchow, for example." in JOSE RIZAL AS A MASON by AUSTIN CRAIG, The Builder Magazine, August 1916 - Volume II - Number 8
  6. ^ "It was a heady atmosphere for the young Brother, and Masons in Germany, Dr. Rudolf Virchow and Dr. Feodor Jagor, were instrumental in his becoming a member of the Berlin Ethnological and Anthropological Societies." From Dimasalang: The Masonic Life Of Dr. Jose P. Rizal By Reynold S. Fajardo, 33° by Fred Lamar Pearson,hu geabutt ,Scottish Rite Journal, October 1998

Further reading

  • Becher, Rudolf Virchow, Berlin, (1891)
  • J. L. Pagel, Rudolf Virchow, Leipzig, (1906)
  • Erwin H. Ackerknecht, Rudolf Virchow: Doctor, Statesman, Anthropologist, Madison, (1953)
  • Virchow, RLK (1978) Cellular pathology. 1859 special ed., 204-207 John Churchill London, UK.
  • The Former Phillipines thru Foreign Eyes, available at Project Gutenburg (co-authored by Virchow with Tomás Comyn, Fedor Jagor, and Chas Wilkes)
NAME Virchow, Rudolf
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Virchow, Rudolf Ludwig Karl; "Father of Pathology"
SHORT DESCRIPTION German doctor, anthropologist, public health activist, pathologist, prehistorian, biologist and politician
DATE OF BIRTH October 13, 1821
PLACE OF BIRTH Schivelbein (Pomerania
DATE OF DEATH September 5, 1902
PLACE OF DEATH Berlin, Germany
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Rudolf_Virchow". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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