Rudolf Carl Virchow
Born 13 October 1821
Schivelbein, Pomerania, Prussia
Died 5 September 1902 (aged 80)
Berlin, German Empire
Nationality Prussian
Fields Medicine
Institutions Charité
University of Würzburg
Alma mater University of Berlin
Doctoral advisor Johannes Peter Müller
Notable students Franz Boas, Friedrich Daniel von Recklinghausen
Known for Cellular pathology
Virchow's triad
Influenced Eduard Hitzig
Notable awards Copley Medal (1892)
Spouse Ferdinande Rosalie Mayer (Rose Virchow)

Rudolph Carl Virchow (/ˈfrk/; German: [ˈfiːʀçoː]) (13 October 1821 – 5 September 1902) was a German doctor, anthropologist, pathologist, prehistorian, biologist, writer, editor, and politician, known for his advancement of public health. He is known as "the father of modern pathology" because his work helped to discredit humorism, bringing more science to medicine. He is also considered one of the founders of social medicine.

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.

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

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 Johannes Peter Mueller's assistant at the Charité Hospital. At this time, the German medical tradition was inclined more towards ‘romantic speculation’ and ‘naked empiricism’, in contrast with the more scientific approach found in England and France.

At Charité, he learned microscopy alongside with Robert Froriep. Froriep was the editor of an abstract journal that specialised in foreign work, allowing Virchow to be exposed to the more forward-looking scientific ideas of France and England. In 1848, he qualified as a lecturer at the University of Berlin, and became Froriep's successor. Unlike his German peers, Virchow used to have great faith that clinical observation, animal experimentation (to determine causes of diseases and the effects of drugs) and pathological anatomy, particularly at the microscopic level, were the basic principles of investigation in medical sciences. He went further and stated the cell was the basic unit of the body that had to be studied to understand disease. Although the term ‘cell’ had been coined in the 1600s, the building blocks of life were still considered to be the 21 tissues of Bichat, a concept described by the French physician Marie Bichat. Because his writings were not receiving favourable attention by German editors, he 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. This journal began publishing high-level contributions based on the criterion that no papers would be published which contained outdated, untested, dogmatic or speculative ideas.[1][2]

In 1849, he was employed as chair of pathological anatomy at the University of Würzburg, leaving his post at Carité, where he was experiencing political persecution. During his six-year period there, he concentrated on his scientific work, including detailed studies on venous thrombosis and cellular theory. By 1856, Virchow was asked to return from Würzburg to the Charité Hospital in Berlin. Such a reinstatement was evidence of the name he was achieving for himself in scientific and medical circles. He became Director of the Pathological Institute and remained in charge of the clinical section of the hospital for the next 20 years.[2]

Scientific Contributions

Cell Biology

Virchow is credited with many important discoveries. His 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.[3] He was one of the first to accept the work of Robert Remak, who showed the origins of cells was the division of pre-existing cells.[4] He did not initially accept the evidence for cell division, believing 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.[5] 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 nonliving matter. For example, maggots were believed to 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 supraclavicular 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 and thrombosis. 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". Having made these initial discoveries based on autopsies, he proceeded to put forward a scientific hypothesis; that pulmonary thrombi are transported from the veins of the leg and that the blood has the ability to carry such an object. He then proceeded to prove this hypothesis through well-designed experiments, repeated numerous times to consolidate evidence, and with meticulously detailed methodology. This work rebuked a claim made by the eminent French pathologist Jean Cruveilhier that phlebitis led to clot development and therefore coagulation was the main consequence of venous inflammation. This was a view held by many before Virchow's work. Related to this research, Virchow described the factors contributing to venous thrombosis, Virchow's triad.[2]


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 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".


Virchow also developed a standard method of autopsy procedure, named for him, and many of his techniques are still used today. He is also credited with inventing the liver probe, a device used to take the temperature of a dead body.

Anthropology and prehistory biology

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. For his contributions in German archaeology, the Rudolf Virchow lecture is held annually in his honour. He made field trips to Asia Minor, the Caucasus, Egypt, Nubia, and other places, sometimes in the company of Heinrich Schliemann. His 1879 journey to the site of Troy is described in Beiträge zur Landeskunde in Troas (“Contributions to the knowledge of the landscape in Troy,” 1879) and Alttrojanische Gräber und Schädel (“Old Trojan graves and skulls,” 1882).[1][7]

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 the "results of craniology" led to "struggle against any theory concerning the superiority of this or that European race" on others.[8]

Political career

More than a laboratory physician, Virchow was an impassioned advocate for social and political reform, stating:

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.

Virchow made himself known as a pronounced democrat in the year of revolutions in Germany (1848). Earlier the same year, the government-employed doctor Virchow was asked to investigate an epidemic of typhus in the poverty-stricken area of Upper Silesia by the Prussian government. His political views are evident in his Report on the Typhus Outbreak of Upper Silesia (1848), where he states 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, which could only be achieved by "full and unlimited democracy" and "education, freedom and prosperity".[9]

These radical statements and minor part in the revolution caused the government to remove him (1849) from his position, although within a year was reinstated as prosector 'on probation'. Prosector was a secondary position in the hospital. This secondary position in Berlin convinced him to accept the chair of pathological anatomy at the medical school in the provincial Würzburg, where he continued his scientific research. Six years later, he had attained fame at scientific and medical circles, and was reinstated at Charité Hospital.[2]

In 1859, he became a member of the Municipal Council of Berlin 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 credited as a founder of social medicine, frequently focusing on the fact that disease is never purely biological, but often socially derived or spread,[10] and anthropology.[11]

The Sausage Duel

As a cofounder and member of the liberal party (Deutsche 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] Of the two versions, one has Virchow declining because he considered dueling an uncivilized way to solve a conflict. The second has passed into legend, but was well documented in the contemporary scientific literature. It has Virchow, having been the challenged and therefore entitled to choose the weapons, selecting two pork sausages, a normal sausage and another one, loaded with Trichinella larvae. His challenger declined the proposition as too risky.[12][13][14]

One area where he co-operated with Bismarck was in the Kulturkampf, the anticlerical campaign against the Catholic Church,[15] claiming the anticlerical laws bore "the character of a great struggle in the interest of humanity".[16] During the discussion of Falk’s May Laws (Maigesetze), Virchow first used the term.[17]

Virchow was respected in Masonic circles,[18] and according to one source[19] may have been a freemason, though no official record of this has been found.


In August 1850, in Berlin, Virchow married Ferdinande Rosalie Mayer (Rose Virchow; 29 February 1832 – 21 February 1913), a liberal's daughter. They had three sons and three daughters:[20]

  • Karl Virchow (1 August 1851 – 21 September 1912) – a chemist
  • Hans Virchow (10 September 1852 – 7 April 1940) – a prominent anatomist
  • Adele Virchow (1 October 1855 – 18 May 1955) – the wife of Rudolf Henning, a prominent professor of German studies
  • Ernst Virchow (24 January 1858 – 5 April 1942)
  • Marie Virchow (29 June 1866 – 23 October 1951) – the wife of Carl Rabl, a prominent Austrian anatomist
  • Hanna Elisabeth Maria Virchow (10 May 1873 – 28 November 1963)


Virchow died of heart failure in Berlin.[21] The funeral was held in the Assembly Room of the Magistracy in the Berlin Town Hall, which was decorated with laurels, palms and flowers.[22] He was buried in the St. Matthews Cemetery in Schöneberg, Berlin.[22]


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 fourth 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)

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

See also


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)

External links

  • Becher, Project Gutenburg (co-authored by Virchow with Tomás Comyn, Fedor Jagor, and Chas Wilkes)
  • Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
  • Students and Publications of Virchow
  • A biography of Virchow at named after him
  • A biography of Virchow by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons that deals with his early work in Cerebrovascular Pathology
  • An English translation of the complete 1848 Report on the Typhus Epidemic in Upper Silesia is available in the February 2006 edition of the journal Social Medicine
  • Some places and memories related to Rudolf Virchow

Template:Copley Medallists 1851-1900

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