Sue Young Histories

Rudolf Ludwig Karl Virchow 1821 – 1902

December 25, 2008

Rudolf Ludwig Karl Virchow 1821 – 1902 was a German doctor, anthropologist, public health activist, pathologist, prehistorian, biologist and politician.

He is referred to as the “Father of Pathology,” and founded the field of Social Medicine.

Rudolph Virchow was extremely interested in homeopathy. He praised Samuel Hahnemann for being the first person to emirically and systematically test the effects of medicaments on healthy people (Rudolf Virchow, Disease, Life, and Man: Selected Essays, (Stanford University Press, 1 Jan 1958). Pages 181-183). Virchow credited Samuel Hahnemann’s theory of homeopathy with stimulating new and detailed investigations in chemisty (Rudolf Virchow, Disease, Life, and Man: Selected Essays, (Stanford University Press, 1 Jan 1958). Page 51). Virchow was impressed by Samuel Hahnemann’s theory that specific diseases required specific remedies (Rudolf Virchow, Disease, Life, and Man: Selected Essays, (Stanford University Press, 1 Jan 1958). Page 59), and Virchow obviously read Samuel Hahnemann’s writings with interest, quoting him closely regarding the impossibility of two disease entities co-existing at the same time in the human body. Virchow was also stimulated by Samuel Hahnemann’s belief that toxins and antitoxins are one and the same. (Rudolf Virchow, Lelland J. Rather (Ed.), Disease, Life, and Man: Selected Essays by Rudolf Virchow, (Stanford University Press, 1958). Page 181), and for his concept of the minimum dose.

Homeopaths were incredulous (John James DrysdaleRobert Ellis DudgeonJohn Rutherford RussellRichard Hughes (Eds.), The British Journal of Homoeopathy, Volume 28, (Maclachlan, Stewart, & Company, 1870). Page miscellaneous under contents and page

  1. at how close Virchow came to homeopathic philosophy in his paper Resemblance to Cholera in the Symptoms of Arsenic Poisoning in 1870.

Rudolph Virchow was a friend of Albert Abrams, and he taught homeopath James H Ward the use of the microscope. Virchow was also a colleague of Emil du Bois Reymond who experimented with micro doses, and Hermann von Helmholtz who experimented by taking homeopathic remedies.

Virchow’s research led him to investigate hormesis:

Virchow (Virch Arch 1854; 6: 133-34) was the first descriptor, three and a half decades in advance of Hugo Schulz.

Virchow observed an increase of the beating activity of the ciliae of tracheal epithelia of postmortem mucosa by sodium and potassium hydroxide at low concentrations, and a concentration dependent decrease to arrest at higher concentrations.

This observation constituted a cornerstone in Virchow’s ‘cellular pathology’, which was based on the theory of cellular ‘irritation and irritability’.

Virchow was a friend of Gustav Uyterhoeven, and he protected him from critics who regarded him as a latent spiritualist with homeopathic sympathies.

Rudolph Virchow wrote:

Modern medicine has defined its view as mechanical, its aim as establishing a physics of organisms. This has shown that life is merely an expression of a sum of phenomena each of which proceeds separately according to the normal physical and chemical (that is to say mechanical) laws. It denies the existence of an independent life force and natural curative power.’

From From a farming family, Virchow studied cows 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.

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. Although he and Theodor Schwann are not mentioned together, his most widely known is indeed his cell theory.

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

  1. (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 spontaneously appear in decaying meat; Francesco Redi carried out experiments which disproved this. Francesco Redi’s work gave rise to 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 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 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.

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 .

In 1892 he was awarded the Copley Medal. 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. He is widely regarded as a pioneer of social medicine.and anthropology.”

Despite these many accomplishments in medicine, Virchow’s reputation is blackened by his rejection of and hostility towards the theory that bacteria cause disease. His attacks on Ignaz Semmelweis’s advocacy of antisepsis delayed the use of antiseptics.

He died from a hip fracture that he sustained falling from a train. Virchow was buried in the St Matthäus Kirchhof Cemetery in Schöneberg, Berlin.