RUDOLF VIRCHOW

Most of you will not be familiar with the name.  He influenced the course of health care, medicine, science, anthropology, biology, and politics.  He was a personality of immense intellect and achievements who deserves our knowing who he was.

Rudolf Virchow © Photos.com/Jupiterimages

He was born on October 13, 1821, as Rudolf Ludwig Carl Virchow in Schivelbein, Prussia, now Poland. His parents were farmers.  Rudolf was a brilliant student.  In gymnasium (equivalent to high school) he became fluent in German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English, Arabic, French, Italian, and Dutch. He was headed for a position in the clergy, but his uncertainty about God and his self-assessment that he had a weak voice made that an untenable career. He chose medicine instead. He studied at the University of Berlin. After graduation, he did an internship at Charité Hospital, the most prestigious hospital in Berlin.  He introduced the use of the microscope to study diseases and developed a method for discovering the cause of death, the autopsy. Forensic medicine was another one of his creations, and he was often called as an expert witness in criminal cases.

In 1847 the Prussian government sent him to study a typhus epidemic in Silesia.  It was there that he came upon the principles of public health for Germany and, eventually, the rest of the world.  His theory was that medicine is the study of disease, and the enlightened government is nothing more than medicine expanded to the population.   Because of his political activism, he lost his position at Charité. He left Berlin to be the chair of pathology at the University of  Würzburg in Bavaria, the first such position in Germany. Eventually, he was invited to return to Berlin to become Charité’s director of pathology for the next 20 years.  

He realized that all cells come from other cells (Omnis cellula e cellula).  From this sprang his theory of cancer origin and how it spread.  He discovered blood cancers that he was the first to call Leukemia, coining that word and many more, such as spina bifida, embolism, thrombosis, and others.  The “Node of Virchow” is now recognized as a swelling in the left side of the neck that is the harbinger of the lethal spread of a gastrointestinal malignancy.  “Virchow’s Triad” details the causes of blood clots in vessels due to one of three causes, stasis of blood, injury of the vessel’s inner lining, and blood that is hypercoagulable.

He discovered that many animal diseases could be transmitted to humans, from which he coined the term “zoonosis.” Coronavirus is a zoonosis that is said to have originated from bats. Virchow was ahead of his time. He found the cause of Trichinosis, the tiny parasitic larval form of worms, trichinella spiralis, that resided in the muscles of pigs and by eating insufficiently cooked pork, could infect humans. Introducing meat inspections in Berlin eventually wiped out that disease in Germany.  The sewer system and water supply of Berlin were designed by him. Virchow managed to get himself elected to the German Reichstag (the Parliament) from 1880 to 1893, and often championed better sanitation, support for the poor, improvement of health care, and other issues that concerned the public good.  The Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who acted as the head of state, often did not see eye to eye with Virchow, especially on excessive military spending.  He irritated Bismarck to such an extent that Bismarck challenged Virchow to a duel.  The rules of such a potentially lethal encounter required that the one who was challenged gets to choose the weapons.  Virchow cleverly chose Kielbasa, Polish sausage, filled with trichinella spiralis worms. Bismark refused to do battle with him based on it being undignified as well as too dangerous!

History, anthropology, and paleontology were his passionate avocations.  He accompanied Heinrich Schliemann to the site in Turkey, where he believed the city of Troy was formerly located, to help in the excavations there.  Furthermore, Virchow was convinced that no Aryan race existed, by studying over 6,000,000 school children, concluding that the people of Europe belonged to a mixture of races that could not be sufficiently identified to be separated, much less considering any group as being superior.  He is often mentioned as an opponent of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but that is not entirely accurate.  Virchow was just not convinced that it should be considered fully proven, but a hypothesis. 

He was offered an aristocratic title but declined this as a privilege he deemed too snooty.  He did, however, subsequently accept the title Geheimrat (Privy Councillor), a distinguished title of the highest advising official or high ranking academic professor who made outstanding contributions to science.  Having published over 2,000 papers and books, he certainly qualified for the title.

Early in 1902, Virchow jumped from a streetcar and broke his thighbone.  He never recovered from that accident and died later that year at age 80. For his liberal ideas, champion of freedom, and proponent of elected representational government by the German people, and his pronouncement that there was no such thing as a superior Arian race, his non-scientific books were burned by the Nazis, even though he had died decades before.