Virchow, Rudolph

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Rudolph Virchow (18211902) was one of the towering figures of nineteenth-century medicine, pathology, and social reform. He studied medicine in Berlin and taught there for a great part of his life, with interludes in Silesia and Würzburg. His primary field was pathology, to which he made prolific contributions, including the founding in 1847 of Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie (known as "Virchow's Archives"), which still survives as a leading journal of pathology. In 1848 he served on a commission to investigate an epidemic of typhus, for which he wrote a penetrating report criticizing the social conditions that fostered the spread of the disease. He had already established a reputation as a crusading social reformer, and this report consolidated that reputation. He has since been identified as much with what came to be called "social medicine" as with his primary specialty of pathology.

Virchow's writings and speeches are full of observations and recommendations about ways to improve people's health by improving their economic and social conditions. He helped to shape the health care reforms introduced in Germany under Otto von Bismarck. He entered politics, serving in the German Reichstag (18801893), while also directing the Pathological Institute in Berlin. His prolific writings, while mainly on topics in pathology, included many essays and addresses on social medicine and public health. These writings remain relevant over one hundred years after they were first written. Virchow also contributed substantially to anthropology, paleontology, and archeology.

John M. Last

(see also: History of Public Health; Social Medicine; Typhus, Epidemic )


Virchow, R. (1985). Collected Essays on Public Health and Epidemiology, ed. and trans. L. J. Rather. Canton, MA: Science History Publications.