Monday, 12 October 2009


“Science without conscience is the soul’s perdition.” - François Rabelais

October 13th is the birthday of Rudolf Ludwig Carl Virchow, the German pathologist, medical scientist, anthropologist, and politician (1821-1902) and one of the great men of my science whom I admire greatly. He was the founder of the school of “cellular pathology”, which forms the basis of modern pathology. He was born in Schivelbein, the only child of a farmer and city treasurer. Relatively little is recorded of his childhood.

In 1839 Virchow entered the Friedrich Wilhelms Institute in Berlin to study medicine so that he could become an army doctor. He was influenced by Johannes Müller, who encouraged many German doctors to use experimental laboratory methods in their medical studies. Virchow received his medical degree in 1843, having already shown a keen interest in pathology. In 1845, while still working as an intern, Virchow published his first scientific paper. By this year he had committed himself to a research methodology based on a mechanistic understanding of vital phenomena.

Medical research, according to Virchow, needed to use clinical observation, experiments on animals, and microscopic examination of human tissues in order to understand how ordinary chemical and physical laws could explain the normal and abnormal phenomena associated with life. He accepted the cell theory as one basic element in this mechanistic understanding of life. In committing himself to this view, he joined a group of radical young medical scientists who were then challenging the dominant vitalism of an older generation. He was instrumental in destroying the vestiges of the humoral causation of disease that were still current in Germany at the time.

In 1846 Virchow began to teach courses in pathological anatomy. In 1847 he was appointed to his first academic position with the rank of Privatdozent. In the same year he and a colleague, Benno Reinhardt, published the first volume of a medical journal, the Archives for Pathological Anatomy and Physiology and Clinical Medicine. Virchow continued to edit this journal until his death in 1902. The journal now known as Virchows Archiv is still published.

Early in 1848 Virchow presented a report on a typhus epidemic in Upper Silesia in which he recommended that the best way to avoid a repetition of the epidemic would be to introduce democratic forms of government. This was an indication of radical political ideas. When the revolution broke out in Berlin, Virchow joined the revolutionaries fighting on the barricades. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the revolution. He participated in a number of democratic clubs and helped edit a weekly paper, Die medizinische Reform, which promoted revolutionary ideas in relation to the medical profession.

Virchow's political views led to his suspension by the re-established conservative government in 1849. The suspension was quickly revoked because of the hostile reaction of the medical fraternity. Later the same year Virchow was appointed professor at the University of Würzburg. Shortly after, he married Rose Mayer, the daughter of a leading German gynaecologist. The chair at Würzburg was the first one in Germany to be devoted to pathological anatomy. During Virchow’s 7 years there, the medical school became recognised as one of the best in Europe, largely due to his teaching. He was a very strict and severe examiner and his favourite justification of his extremely difficult pathology examinations was: “Einmal in Leben wenigstens muss doch ein Arzt auf der Höhe der Wissenschaft sein.” (“Well, at least once in his life, a doctor has to be at the peak of his science.”)

He developed his concept of “cellular pathology”, basing his interpretation of pathological processes on the recently formulated cell theory of Matthias Schleiden and Theodor Schwann. In the same period he became joint editor of an annual publication reviewing the year's progress in medical science. This publication later became known as Virchow’s Jahresbericht, and he continued to edit it until his death. He also started work in 1854 on his “Handbook of Special Pathology and Therapeutics”, which became the model for later German “handbooks” in various sciences. Although Virchow's main interest at Würzburg was pathology, he also continued to work in the field of public health and began researches in physical anthropology.

In 1856 Virchow accepted a chair at the University of Berlin on condition that a new building be constructed for a pathological institute. He remained in this position for the rest of his life. From 1859 Virchow renewed his activities in politics. In that year he was elected as a member of the city council, on which he served until his death. On the council he mainly interested himself in matters of public health. In 1861 Virchow was one of the foundation members of the Deutsche Fortschrittpartei and was elected in the same year to the Prussian Diet. He vigorously opposed Bismarck's preparations for war and his “blood and iron” policy of unifying Germany.

In the late 1860s and 1870s Virchow concentrated his attention on anthropology and international medical relations. He was active in numerous international medical congresses during this period and kept a continuing interest in the control and prevention of epidemics. In 1873 Virchow was elected to the Prussian Academy of Science. All his contributions to this body were in the field of anthropology, mostly concerning physical anthropology and archeology. In his new field as in others he took up the task of editing a leading journal, the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie. Virchow's later years continued to be active, especially in relation to his editorial duties. He died on Sept. 5th, 1902.

The painting is by Robert Thom who has painted a remarkable series of history of medicine tableaux.


  1. Thanks for your have a very interesting blog!

  2. What a fascinating man Herr Professor Dr Virchow must have been! He certainly seems to have done a lot in his life and if the admiration you have for him is anything to go by Nicholas, he was a good scientist too.

  3. Oh, he sounds like a teacher we had at college. Very strict!!!

  4. medicine and social issues cant be separated and it looks like he was switched on