Rudolf Virchow

Rudolf Virchow
Rudolph Carl Virchow

Rudolph Virchow
Born 13 October 1821
Schivelbein, Pomerania, Prussia
Died 5 September 1902 (age 80)
Berlin, German Empire
Nationality German
Fields Medicine
Known for Cellular pathology

Rudolph Carl Virchow (13 October 1821 – 5 September 1902) was a German doctor, anthropologist, pathologist, prehistorian, biologist and politician, known for his advancement of public health. Referred to as "the father of modern pathology," he is considered one of the founders of social medicine.


Life and scientific career

From a farming family, he studied medicine and chemistry in Berlin at the Prussian Military Academy from 1839 to 1843[1] on a scholarship. When he graduated in 1843, he went to serve as Robert Froriep's assistant at the Charité Hospital. The campus where this hospital is located is named after him, the Campus Virchow Klinikum. In 1847, he qualified as a lecturer at the University of Berlin, and he was associated with Benno Reinhardt in founding the Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie und für klinische Medizin, world-famous as “Virchow's Archives,” which he edited alone from Reinhardt's death in 1852 until his own.[1]

Virchow is credited with multiple important discoveries. Virchow's most widely known scientific contribution is his cell theory, which built on the work of Theodor Schwann. He is cited as the first to recognize leukemia cells.[2] He was one of the first to accept (and plagiarize[3][4]) the work of Robert Remak who showed that the origins of cells was the division of preexisting cells.[5] He did not initially accept the evidence for cell division, believing that it only occurs in certain types of cells. When it dawned on him that Remak might be right, in 1855 he published Remak's work as his own which caused a falling out between the two.[3] This work Virchow encapsulated in the epigram 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.)[6] 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 spontaneously appear in decaying meat; Francesco Redi carried out experiments which disproved this notion and coined the maxim Omne vivum ex ovo ("every living thing comes from a living thing" — literally "from an egg"), 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 known 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 fields of cellular pathology and 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. One of Virchow's major contributions to German medical education was to encourage the use of microscopes by medical students, and he was known for constantly urging his students to 'think microscopically'.

Rudolf Virchow, by Hugo Vogel

Virchow 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 "Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale. Medicine, as a social science, as the science of human beings, has the obligation to point out problems and to attempt their theoretical solution: the politician, the practical anthropologist, must find the means for their actual solution....The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and social problems fall to a large extent within their jurisdiction." His views are evident in his Report on the Typhus Outbreak of Upper Silesia (1848), where he states 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.[7] He is widely regarded as a pioneer of social medicine,[8] and anthropology.[9]

In 1869 Virchow 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, and of which he was several times president. In 1879 he made a journey to the site of Troy, described in Beiträge zur Landeskunde in Troas (1879) and Alttrojanische Gräber und Schädel (1882).[1] In 1885 he launched a study of craniometry, which gave surprising results contradictory 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 they 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 .[10]

In 1861, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1892 he was awarded the Copley Medal. Among his most famous students was anthropologist Franz Boas, who became a professor at Columbia University.

Virchow died of heart failure. He was buried in the St Matthews Cemetery in Schöneberg, Berlin.

Virchow's tomb in Berlin

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

Opposition to Darwinism

Virchow famously delivered an anti-Darwinian lecture on human and primate skulls, in which he emphasized the lack of fossil evidence for a common ancestor of man and ape.

Medical terms named after Virchow

  • Virchow's angle, the angle between the nasobasilar line and the nasosubnasal line.
  • Virchow's cell, a macrophage in Hansen's disease.
  • Virchow's cell theory, "omnis cellula e cellula" - every living cell comes from another living cell.
  • Virchow's concept of pathology, comparison of diseases common to humans and animals.
  • Virchow's disease, leontiasis ossea, now recognized as a symptom rather than a disease.
  • Virchow's gland, Virchow's node.
  • Virchow's Law, during craniosynostosis, skull growth is restricted to a plane perpendicular to the affected, prematurely fused suture and is enhanced in a plane parallel to it.
  • Virchow's line, a line from the root of the nose to the lambda.
  • Virchow's metamorphosis, lipomatosis in the heart and salivary glands.
  • Virchow's method of autopsy, a method of autopsy where each organ is taken out one by one.
  • Virchow's node, the presence of metastatic cancer in a lymph-node in the supraclavicular fossa (root of the neck left of the midline). Also known as Troisier's sign.
  • Virchow's psammoma, psammoma bodies in meningiomas.
  • Virchow-Robin spaces, enlarged perivascular spaces (EPVS) (often only potential) that surround blood vessels for a short distance as they enter the brain.
  • Virchow-Seckel syndrome, a very rare disease also known as "bird-headed dwarfism".
  • Virchow's triad, the classic factors which precipitate venous thrombus formation: endothelial dysfunction or injury, hemodynamic changes and hypercoaguability.

Political career

Rudolf Virchow as a public figure.

Virchow made himself known as a pronounced democrat in the year of revolution, 1848, and his political activity caused the government to remove him (1849) from his position, but he was soon reinstated. He became a member of the Municipal Council of Berlin in 1859, and began his career as a civic reformer. Elected to the Prussian Diet in 1862, he became leader of the Radical or Progressive party; and from 1880 to 1893 he was a member of the Reichstag.[1] He worked 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 or spread.

As a co-founder and member of the liberal party (Deutschen Fortschrittspartei) he was a leading political antagonist of Bismarck. He was opposed to Bismarck’s excessive military budget, which angered Bismarck sufficiently to challenge Virchow to a duel in 1865.[1] Virchow declined.

One area where he co-operated with Bismarck was in the Kulturkampf, the anti-clerical campaign against the Catholic Church[11] claiming that the anti-clerical laws bore "the character of a great struggle in the interest of humanity".[12] It was during the discussion of Falk’s May Laws (Maigesetze) that Virchow first used the term.[13]

Virchow was respected in Masonic circles,[14] and according to one source[15] may have been a freemason, though no official record of this has been found.


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

  • Mittheilungen über die in Oberschlesien herrschende Typhus-Epidemie (1848)
  • Vorlesungen über Cellularpathologie in ihrer Begründung auf physiologischer und pathologischer Gewebelehre , his chief work (1859) The 4th edition of this work formed the first volume of Vorlesungen über Pathologie below.
  • Die Cellularpathologie in ihrer Begründung auf physiologische und pathologische Gewebelehre. (1858; English translation, 1860) [1]
  • Handbuch der speciellen Pathologie und Therapie, prepared in collaboration with others (1854–76)
  • Vorlesungen über Pathologie (1862–72)
  • Die krankhaften Geschwülste (1863–67)
  • Ueber den Hungertyphus (1868)
  • Ueber einige Merkmale niederer Menschenrassen am Schädel (1875)
  • Beiträge zur physischen Anthropologie der Deutschen (1876)
  • Die Freiheit der Wissenschaft im Modernen Staat (1877)
  • Gesammelte Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiete der offentlichen Medizin und der Seuchenlehre (1879)
  • Gegen den Antisemitismus (1880)


  1. ^ a b c d e Wikisource-logo.svg "Virchow, Rudolf". Encyclopedia Americana. 1920. 
  2. ^ Mukherjee, Siddhartha (16 November 2010). The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4391-0795-9. Retrieved 6 September 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Rutherford, Dr. Adam (August 2009). "The Cell: Episode 1 The Hidden Kingdom". BBC4. 
  4. ^ Silver, George A. (January 1987). "Virchow, the heroic model in medicine: health policy by accolade". American Journal of Public Health 77 (1): 86. PMC 1646803. PMID 3538915. Retrieved 2011-04-04. 
  5. ^ A history of the life sciences, Lois N. Magner, p. 185
  6. ^ Tan SY, Brown J (July 2006). "Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902): "pope of pathology"" (PDF). Singapore Med J 47 (7): 567–8. PMID 16810425. 
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Rx for Survival . Global Health Champions . Paul Farmer, MD, PhD | PBS at
  10. ^ Andrea Orsucci, "Ariani, indogermani, stirpi mediterranee: aspetti del dibattito sulle razze europee (1870-1914), Cromohs, 1998 (Italian)
  11. ^ "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
  12. ^ "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
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ "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
  15. ^ "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, 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 Philippines thru Foreign Eyes by Tomás de Comyn at Project Gutenberg, available at Project Gutenburg (co-authored by Virchow with Tomás Comyn, Fedor Jagor, and Chas Wilkes)
  • (1) Rudolf Virchow, Menschen- und Affenschadeh Vortrag gehalten am 18. Febr. 1869 im Saale des Berliner Handwerkervereins. Berlin: Luderitz, (1870)
  • Eisenberg, L. "Rudolf Virchow: the physician as politician" Medicine and War 1986;2(4):243-250.

External links

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