Virchow, Rudolf Carl

views updated May 17 2018


(b. Schivelbein, Pomerania, Germany, 13 October 1821; d. Berlin, Germany, 5 September 1902), pathology, social medicine, public health, anthropology.

A strong and versatile personality equally interested in the scientific and social aspects of medicine, Virchow was the most prominent German physician of the nineteenth century. His long and successful career reflects the ascendancy of German medicine after 1840, a process that gradually provided the basic underpinnings to a discipline that was still largely clinical. Armed with great self-confidence, aggressiveness, and a deep sense of social justice, Virchow became a medical activist who engaged vigorously in political polemics and participated in social reforms. His elevation of science to the level of quasi-religious dogma and his utopian view of medicine as the science of man should be interpreted within the framework of his times, a period that witnessed the effective adoption of scientific method in medicine.

Virchow was born in a small town in backward and rural eastern Pomerania; he was the only son of a modest merchant. He expressed an early interest in the natural sciences and received private lessons in the classical languages. Such a background enabled Virchow to become educationally competitive and in 1835 he successfully transferred to the Gymnasium in Köslin, where he received a broad humanistic training and subsequently demonstrated high scholarly abilities.

Because of his promising aptitudes, Virchow received in 1839 a military fellowship to study medicine at the Friedrich-Wilhelms Institut in Berlin. The institution, popularly known as the “Pépiniere,” provided educational opportunities for those unable to afford the costs in return for subsequent army medical service.

Although contemporary German medicine was only slowly shifting away from purely theoretical concerns, Virchow had the opportunity to study under Johannes Müller and Johann L.Schönlein, thereby being exposed to experimental laboratory and physical diagnostic methods, as well as epidemiological studies.

In 1843 Virchow received his medical degree from the University of Berlin with a doctoral dissertation on the corneal manifestations of rheumatic disease. Shortly thereafter he received an appointment as “company surgeon” or medical house officer at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, where he rotated through the various services. In addition, with the hospital’s prosector, Robert Froriep (1804-1861), Virchow carried on microscopic studies on vascular inflammation and the problems of thrombosis and embolism.

In 1845 two forceful speeches delivered by invitation before large and influential audiences at the Friedrich-Wilhelms Institut revealed young Virchow as one of the most articulate spokesmen for the new generation of German physicians. Rejecting transcendental concerns, Virchow envisaged medical progress from three main sources: clinical observations, including the examination of the patient with the aid of physicochemical methods; animal experimentation to test specific etiologies and study certain drug effects; and pathological anatomy, especially at the microscopic level. Life, he insisted, was merely the sum of physical and chemical actions and essentially the expression of cell activity.

Virchow’s rather provocative ideas generated considerable hostility among his older peers, but he passed his licensure examination in 1846 without difficulties and began teaching pathological anatomy. Under the auspices of Prussia’s high military and civilian authorities, he traveled to Prague and Vienna in order to evaluate their programs in pathology. One of the consequences of his trip was Virchow’s strong attack on Rokitansky and the Viennese Medical School, whom he indicted for their dogmatism and support of an outdated humoralism.

After completing his Habilitationsschrift in 1847, Virchow was officially appointed an instructor under the deanship of Johannes Müller at the University of Berlin; he also succeeded Froriep as prosector at the Charité Hospital. In the same year Virchow launched–ostensibly in order to publish his speeches of 1845—a new scientific journal with Benno Reinhardt, a colleague in pathology. The publication, named Archiv für pasthologische Anatomie und Physiologie, und für die klinische Medizin, became one of the most prominent medical periodicals of the time; and Virchow remained its editor until his death.

The typhus epidemic that ravaged the Prussian province of Upper Silesia in early 1848 prompted the government to send a team of physicians to the area to survey the disaster. With the pediatrician and bureaucrat Stephan F. Barez, Virchow visited the afflicted region for almost three weeks and came face to face with the backward and destitute Polish minority, who were struggling precariously to service. According to his own testimony, the impact of that encounter left an indelible mark on his already liberal social and political beliefs. Instead of merely returning with a new set of medical guidelines for the Prussian government, Virchow recommended political freedom, and sweeping educational and economic reforms for the people of Upper Silesia.

Virchow’s gradual alienation from the status quo and his political radicalization led him to participate actively in the uprisings of 1848 in Berlin, where he fought alongside his friends on the barricades. As a result, Virchow was thrown into a full schedule of political activities and became a member of the Berlin Democratic Congress and editor of a weekly entitled Die medizinische Reform. Virchow’s triumph, however, was shortlived. In early 1849 he was suspended from his academic position as prosector at the Charité Hospital because of his revolutionary activities. Although he was partially reinstated as a result of protests from medical circles and students, the defeat of liberalism imposed restrictions on Virchow and created an unfavorable climate for his activities.

Thus, in November 1849 Virchow finally left Berlin and went on to the University of Würzburg in order to assume the recently created chair in pathological anatomy, the first of its kind in Germany. He was temporarily separated from political concerns, and the ensuing years marked Virchow’s highest level of scientific achievement and the establishment of the scientific achievement and the establishment of the concept of “cellular pathology.” He was also deeply engaged in teaching, and among his most famous Würzburg students were Edsin Klebs (1834-1913), Ernst H. P. A. Heackel (1834-1919), and Adolf Kussmaul (1822-1902). Virchow initiated the oublication of the xis volume Handbuch der speziellen Pathologie und Therapie, a mounmental textbook of pathology and therapetics; he also edited the famous Jahres bericht, a German yearbook depicting medical advances.

In 1856 Virchow accepted an invitation to return to Berlin as professor of pathological anatomy and director of the newly created Pathological Institute. Under Virchow the institution became a famous taining ground for a large number of German and foreign medical scientists, including Hoppe-Seyler, Recklinghausen, and Cohnheim. In addition, for almost two decades Virchow remained charge of a clinical section at the Charité Hospital, thereby carrying out the program of medical progress enunciated in 1845.

Two aspects of Virchow the pathologist should be distinguished: his scientific methodology and his activities in the field of cellular pathology. Without being original, Virchow stressed the importance of observation and experiment, strongly condemning his speculative predecessors. He himself, however, fell prey to the still lingering desire for an overall synthesis of medical knowledge and the establishment of first principles. Imaginative and intuitive,. Virchow performed numerous inductive leaps, leaving to others, whose work he often did not acknowledge, the painstaking task of fact collecting.

Virchow expressed an early interest in “pathological physiology” and promulgated a dynamic view of disease processes, which viewed the static structural changes (pathological anatomy) sequentially. Although the idea was by no means novel, with the aid of improved microscopic and biochemical techniques, Virchow applied the concept successfully. For Virchow the microscope became the central tool for reducing pathological processes to altenations occurring at the cellular level. Hence, the cell became the fundamental living unit in both health and disease-a biological rather than a mechanical entity. Virchow’s notion of cellular pathology implied that all the manifestations of disease could be reduced to disturbances of living cells. Moreover, according to Virchow’s famous principle, “omnis cellula e cellula,” all cells originated from other cells. Cellular function, in turn, depended on intracellular physicochemical changes, which were reflected in the varying morphology, Finally, all pathological forms were to be viewed as deviations from the normal structures. Virchow’s cellular pathology demolished the vestiges of humoral and neural physiopathology, and placed the field on its modern basis.

During the early years of Virchow’s second period in Berlin, his interests began to shift gradually from pathology to anthropology, while he was engaged at the same time in a fair amount of political activities. Nevertheless, Virchow published in 1858 his most famous book on turmors, Die Krankhaften Geshwülste.

At the suggestion of an old friend. Virchow was appointed in 1859 to the Berlin City Council, where he concentrated his efforts on matters related to public health. Aided by the mayor of Berlin, Karl T. Seydel, who was his brother-in-law, Virchow was instrumental in achieving improvements in both the sewage system and water supply of the rapidly growing metropolis. In 1861 he was elected a member of the Prussian lower house and represented the new liberal Deutsche Fortschrittspartei (German Progressive Party), which he had founded with some friends. As an early leader of the opposition to Bismarck’s policy of rearmament and forced unification, Virchow brought down on himself the wrath of his opponent and was chalenged by Bismark to a duel, which he was wise enough to avoid. During the ensuing Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Virchow was active in organizing military hospital facilities and establishing ambulance and train services for the wounded.

Following his experiences in Upper Silesia, Virchow stressed a sociological theory of disease, claiming that political and socioeconomic factors acted as significant predisposing factors in many ailments. He even went so far as to declare that certain epidemics arose specifically in response to some social upheavals. Virchow considered a number of diseases as “artificial” or primarily caused by conditions within society and thus liable to cure or elimination through social change. As early as 1848 Virchow insisted on the constitutional right of every individual to be healthy . Society had the responsibility to provide the necessary sanitary conditions for the unhampered development of its members. Here again, through his work in the Reichstag and the city council of Berlin, Virchow not only espoused lofty ideals but fought hard to achieve the necessary reforms in school hygiene, sewage treatment, pure water control, and hospital construction.

In proclaiming that medicine was the highest form of human insight and the mother of all the sciences, Virchow was following in the footsteps of French social thought and also expressing a postulate of the German philosophers of nature. Although his utopian hopes for medicine as the unified science of man did not materialize, Virchow’s efforts were helpful in associating the rapidly developing natural science with medical concerns. His attempts to derive an ethical framework from the biological sciences laid the foundations of bioethics.

In his later years Virchow’s skeptical attitude toward bacteriology was based, to a large extent, on his belief that there was no single cause of disease. He did not consider any germ to be the sole etiologic agent in an infectious illness. The bacterial agents were, in Virchow’s view, only one factor in the causation of disease among a variety of environmental and sociological factors clearly discernible during the typhus and cholera epidemics of 1847-1849. Such broad considerations did not originate with Virchow, but they gained greater attention and significance with his prestigious support.

From 1870 onward, Virchow rather assiduously cultivated another science: anthropology. Cofounder of the German Anthropological Society a year earlier and author of several studies dealing with skull deformities, he studied the physical characteristics of the Germans, especially the Frisians. After performing a nationwide racial survey of schoolchildren, Virchow concluded that there was no pure German race but only a mixture of differing morphological types. On another matter, he questioned Darwinism as an established fact, viewing it rather as a tentative hypothesis in search of adequate proof.

The Darwinian stimulus to archaeological research also affected Virchow, and in 1870 he began his own excavations in Pomerania. His later friendship with Schliemann lent some legitimacy to this enthusiastic dilettante and eventually helped to attract the treasures to Berlin. In 1879 Virchow himself traveled with Schliemann to Hissarlik, where Homer’s Troy was being excavated, and in 1888 he participated in another archaeological dig in Egypt.

In 1886 Virchow was instrumental in the erection of the Berlin Ethnological Museum, followed by the Museum of German Folklore in 1888. Throughout the 1880’s he continued to play a key role in the budgetary matters of the Reichstag, and he remained chairman of the finance committee until his death.

Virchow’s eightieth birthday in 1901 became the occasion for an unprecedented worldwide celebration. A torchlight parade in Berlin and numerous receptions in the leading scientific centers, even as far away as Japan and Russia, gave testimony to his unparalleled international reputation. Never seriously ill throughout his longlife. Virchow suffered a broken hip in early 1902 after falling from a streetcar in Berlin. Although seemingly on the mend, the long period of inactivity seriously undetermined his health, and died several months later of cardiac insufficiency.

Virchow’s great fame made him a widely respected authority in his numerous fields of endeavor. His penchant, however, for polemics and acrimonious exchanges with colleagues exerted unfavorable influences for the development of certain medical ideas and methods. An example was his opposition to the prophylactic hand washings of Semmelweis for the prevention of puerperal fever. In his later years Virchow displayed a stifling dogmatism and a certain pedantry, which in some measure detracted from his earlier popularity. In spite of these traits he was overwhelmingly self-confident and untiringly persuasive in popularizing his views. Few great men have been privileged to perceive more clearly the fruits of their labors in the autumn of their lives than Virchow. In less than half a century Germany had progressed from speculative and philosophical healing to become the world center of modern scientific medicine, and Virchow had played a decisive role in this crucial transformation.


I. Original Works. Most of Virchow’s important medical and anthropological writings are enumerated chronologically in a small “Festschrift” edited by J. Schwalbe on the occasion of the physician’s 80th birthday: Virchow-Bibliographie 1843-1901 (Berlin, 1901), which covers close to 2,000 titles, and contains a valuble subject index. Pertinent archival material can be found in the “Nachlass Rudolf Virchow” of the Literatur-Archiv, Institute für deustsche Sprache und Litgeratur Deutsche Akademic der Wissenschaften, East Berlin. Thor Jager (Wichita, Kansas) has to large collection of Virchow’s original MSS and letters, with many pamphlets and books.

Prominent among Virchow’s publications were Die Cellularpathologie in ihrer Begründung auf physiologische und pathologische Gewebelehre (Berlin, 1858). representing 20 lectures that he delivered at the Pathological Institute in Berlin between February and April 1858. The 2nd ed. of the work was translated into English by F. Chance, Cellular Pathology as Based Upon Physilogical and Pathological Histology (London, 1860). Two important collections of Virchow’s writings are Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur wissenschaftlichen Medizin (Frankfurt, 1856), which contains, among others, articles on white cells and leukemia, thrombosis and embolism. gynecological subjects, and thr pathology of the newborn; and Gesammelte Abhandlungen ausdem Gebiet der oeffentlichen Medizin and der Seuchenlehre, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1879), dealing with medical reform and public health; epidemics and mortality statisics; hospitals, military and urban sanitation; and legal medicine.

A collection of 30 lectures on tumors given at the University of Berlin during the winter semester 1862-1863 is in Die krankhaften Geschwiilste, 3 vols, (Berlin, 1863 - 1867). For other lectures on general pathology, see Die Vorlesungen Rudolf Virchows über allgemeine pathologische Anatomie aus dem Wintersemaster 1855-56 in wüurburg, E, Kugler, ed. (Jena, 1930).

Some of Virchow’s more philosophical essays and socipolitical speeches have received wider diffusion and have been translated into English. Die Freiheit der Wissenschaft im modernen Staat (Berlin, 1877) appeared as The Freedom of Science in the Modern State (London, 1878). Morgagni und der anatomische Gedanks (Berlin, 1894) was translated by R. E. Schlueter and J. Auer, “Morgagni and the Anatomocal Concept,” in Bullentein of the Histroy of Medicine, 7 (1939), 975-989. A series of talks are in Disease, Life and Man, Selected Essays by Rudolf Virchow, trans and with an introduction by L. J. Rather (Standford, 1958), including (1847, 1877), which also appeared in Bullentin of the Histrory of Medicine, 30 (1956), 436-449, 537-543.

For Virchow’s critique of Rokitansky’s pathology. L. J. Rather, trans., “Virchow’s Review of Rokitansky’s Handbuch’ in the Precussiche Medizinal Zeitung. Dec 1846,” in clio medica, 4 (1969), 127–140, Virchow’s Croonian lecture delivered at the Royal Society of London in 1893 was translated into Enhlish and published as “The Place of Pathology Among the Bilogical Sciences,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 53 (1893), 114– 129. Virchow also gave the second Huxley lecture at the opening of Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, London, in 1898, which appeared first in English as: “Recent Advances in Sciences and Their Bearing on Medicine and Surgery,” in British Medical Journal (1898), 2. 1021-1028.

Virchow’s early studies and relationships with his parents are contained in an extensive corresponddence, Rudolf Virchow, Briefe an Seine Eltern, 1839 bis 1864, M. Rabl, ed. (Leipzing, 1906).

Virchow’s most notable anthropological writings are Beiträge zur physicichen Antropologie der Deutschem mubesonderer Berücksichtigung, der Friesen (Berlin, 1877), and Crania Ethnica Americana, Sammlung auserlesener amerikanischer Schädeltypen (Berlin, 1892). See also Menschen tend Afferschädel (Berlin, 1870), a lecture that was translated as The Cranial Affinities of Man and the Ape (Berlin, 1871). For an English version of Virchow’s review, see C. A. Bleismer, ”Anthropology in the Last Twenty Years,” in Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (1890), 550-570. “Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (1896) was translated as “Rassenbildung und Erblickeit” (1896) was translated as “Heredity and the Formation of Race,” in This Is Race, E. W. Count. ed. (New york, 1950), 176–193.

II. Secondary Literature. The most important work on Virchow is Erwin H. Ackerknencht, Rudolf Virshow, Doctor, Statesman, Anthrolopogist (Madison, Wis., 1953), which is not primarily a biography but rather an analysis of Virchow’s ideas, works, and accomplishements. Among some of the more recent biographical works in German are Ludwig Ascholf, Rudolf Virchow (Hamburg, 1948); Hellmuth Unger, Virchow, ein Leben Fur die Forschaung (Hamburg, 1953); Curt Froboses, Rudolf Virchow (Stuttgart, 1953); Kurt Winter, Rudolf Virchow (Leipzing, 1956); and Ernst Meyer, Rudolf Virchow (Wiesbaden, 1956).

In 1921 a large number of speeches and articles appeared in Germany to commemorate Virchow’s 100th birthday. For a list of these work, see Virchows Archiv fur pathologiasche Anatomie und Physilogie und fur klinische Medizin, 235 (1921), and the Deutsche medizinisches Wochenschrift, 47, no. 40 (1921). 1185-1195. Several letters written by the young Virchow appear in G. B. Gruber, “Aus der Jungarztzeit von Rudolf Virchow,” in Virchows Achiv…, 321 (1952), 462–481. Brief biographical sketches of Virchow in English are the opbituray by F. Semon in British Medical Journal. (1902), 2, 795–802; O. Isreal, “Rudolph Virchow, 1821-1902,” in Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (1902), 641–659; James J. walsh. Makers of Modern Medicine (New York, 1915), 357–430; and Henry E. Sigerist, Grosse Ärzte, eine Geschichte der Heilkunde in Lebensbildern (Munchi, 1932), English trans. by E. and C. Paul, The Great Doctors (Garden City, N. Y., 1958), 319–330.

Recent German works dealing with Virechow’s achievenments are Felix Boenheim, Virchow’s Werk und Wirkung (Berlin, 1957); Wolfgang Jacob, Medizinische Anthropologie im 19. Jahrhundert; and Gerhard Hiltner, Rudolf Virchow, ein weltgeschichtlicher Brennpunkt im Werdegang von Naturwisswenschaft und Medizin(Stuttgart, 1970). Also noteworthy is K. Panne, “Die Wissenschaftstheorie von Rudolf Virchow” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Univ of Düsseidorf, 1967). Numerous articles dealing with aspects of Virchow’s work are W. Pagel, “Virchow und die Grundlagen der Medizin des XIX. Jahrhunderts,” in Jenaer medizin-historische Beiträge, 14 (1931), 1-44; P. Diepgen, “Virchow und die Romantik,” in Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift, 58 (1932), 1256-1258; L. J. Rather, “Virchow und die Entwicklung der Entzündungs-frage im 19. Jahrhundert,” in Verhandlungen des XX. Internationalen Kongresses für die Geschichte der Medizin (Hildesheim, 1968), 161–177; and H. M. Koelbing, “Rudolf Virchow und die moderne Pathologie,” in Münchener medizinische Wochenschrift110 (1968), 349–354.

Other valuable references to Virchow are L. S. King, “Cell Theory, Key to Modern Medicine,” in The Growth of Medical Thought (Chicago, 1963), 207–219; and W. H. McMenemey, “Cellular Pathology, With Special Teachings on Medical Thought and Practice,” in Medicine and Science in the 1860’s. F. N. L. Poynter, ed. (London, 1968), 13–43.

Important journal articles are W. Pagel, “The Speculative Basis of Modern Pathology. Jahn, Virchow, and the Philosophy of Pathology,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 38 (1945), 1–43; J. W. Wilson, “Virchow’s Contribution to the Cell Theory,” in Journal of the History of Medicine, 2 (1947), 163–178; P. Klemperer, “The Pathology of Morgagni and Virchow,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 27 (1953), 24–38; D. Pridan, “Rudolf Virchow and Social Medicine in Historical Perspective,” in Medical History, 8 (1964), 274–284; and L. J. Rather, “Rudolf Virchow’s Views on Pathology, Pathological Anatomy and Cellular Pathology,” in Archives of Pathology, 82 (1966), 197–204.

Guenter B. Risse

Virchow, Rudolf Carl

views updated Jun 27 2018


(b. Schivelbein, Pomerania, Germany, 13 October 1821;

d. Berlin, Germany, 5 September 1902), pathology, social medicine, public health, anthropology. For the original article on Virchow see DSB, vol. 14.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Virchow was the object of new historical assessments, which were mostly due to changing perspectives on science and society in the nineteenth century. While previously Virchow was primarily a subject for historians of medicine, he increasingly also became an object of interest in the history of science and in general history. Furthermore, while more traditional historical approaches to Virchow still played an important role, there emerged an important trend to consider him no longer primarily as the “great doctor” but rather as a prototype of the modern scientist and also as a forerunner of scientific expertise in politics. Subsequent historical understandings of Virchow mostly focus on four aspects:

  1. medicine;
  2. anthropology;
  3. science and politics; and
  4. science and the public.

Medicine. Virchow’s importance in the realm of pathology and physiology but also of social medicine has remained a focus of scholarly interest. He has been an important source of professional identity for the medical

community, which tries to benefit from his heritage. Under such a perspective, Virchow has been described as a harbinger of modern medicine and also of modern medical ethics.

Virchow’s role in nineteenth-century medicine, however, may also be considered an important example of modern market dynamics in science, of construction of disciplines, and also as part of state attempts to modernize Germany with the help of science. This might also help to explain why the Prussian state bureaucracy was much more reluctant to chastise the promising young scientist at the end of the revolution in 1848 than in other cases of rebellious scholars. And it also helps to explain the further steps of his astonishing career, which for some time made him to the symbol of modern German science.

In such a critical perspective, which is less interested in the “genius” and more in the institutional and social framework that made the emergence of a scientific star possible, there is also less emphasis on the originality of Virchow’s ideas, and more on the techniques he used to strengthen both the disciplinary power of pathology and physiology and his authority within these fields. Especially important in this respect are his numerous publications in scientific journals, which provided him opportunity both to disseminate his ideas and to exert control over the dissemination of the ideas of others. Virchow can be seen as a forerunner of the modern market-oriented scientist who lived under the terms of “publish or perish” and who was highly effective in organizing material resources—ranging from subjects for dissections to the funding of institutes in Wuerzburg and Berlin—to promote his research. And one might add that he also was highly effective in squeezing academic rivals such as Robert Remak out of the market.

With the establishment of his Pathological Institute in Berlin in 1856, Virchow also participated in the “institutional revolution” (Cahan,) which adapted scientific institutes to the needs of a rising industrial nation. At the Pathological Institute, where Virchow ruled for about forty-five years, a specific scientific culture emerged that molded generations of German medical students who received their professional training there. In particular, Virchow’s dissection techniques can be considered both as medical and cultural techniques. His students were trained for Accurate Observation and exact description by help of a variety of means ranging from a “microscopical Railway” where preparations were circling among them around to glasses filled with colored beans. “Learning to see,” which formed the core of Virchow’s medical educational program, was both essential to his allegedly inductive epistemology and to his liberal worldview.

Anthropology. Recent interest has grown especially in Virchow’s anthropological activities, which had moved to the center of his scientific activities in the late 1860s. Again, his role in constructing a new discipline has found special interest, since anthropology had not become a university-based science in Germany before the late nineteenth century. The decisive tool for the institutionalization of anthropology was the Berlin Anthropological Society, over which Virchow presided for decades and which provided the core of the nationwide German Anthropological Society. As in other countries, scientific amateurs were pivotal for the establishment of the new discipline of anthropology in Germany. The membership of amateurs in scientific voluntary associations served both the construction of the disciplinary identity of anthropology and the reinvigoration of a bourgeois identity.

The main interest for Virchow’s anthropological activities, however, results from the debate on the origins of modern scientific racism. For a long time, Virchow has been considered as a rock in the racist tide of his time. This point of view has been reinforced by some authors who consider that the illiberal break of anthropology could only have taken place in the generations following Virchow. Others, however, suggest that Virchow himself paved the way if not to racist ideas then to racist practices, notably by his famous anthropological examinations of hair, eye, and skin colors of German schoolchildren which he undertook in 1876. By making anthropological distinctions popular, he might have spread a racist “tacit knowledge” among ordinary Germans.

In this manner, Virchow has become a symbol of the inherent contradictions of the liberal defense against racism and anti-Semitism in the German Empire. He represents the dilemma of liberal anthropology at the fin de siècle: While anthropology finally had achieved academic recognition, it had lost all scientific criteria to define race. At the same time, however, it was not able to get rid of the stereotype of primordial races. So, on the one hand, Virchow strongly disapproved racial anti-Semitism as superstition and atavism. On the other hand, however, he stuck to a intuitive notion of race and to the stereotype of the primordial Teuton.

Science and Politics. A great deal of the interest in Virchow toward the end of the twentieth century was devoted to his political activities, which previously often had been considered a rather ephemeral aspect of his life and work. His political activities, however, should not be considered only as a time-consuming distraction from his scientific work. Rather, they were closely linked not only to his scientific self-understanding, but also to a liberal and bourgeois model of citizenship that contributed highly to the ultimate core of his personality. Therefore, Virchow is also an example for the changing feasibility in combining science and political activities as aspects of a civic lifestyle in the nineteenth century: He might be considered as a prototype of the “scientist as citizen.”

While during the revolution of 1848 Virchow had successfully claimed the identity of science and politics, in later years he became more skeptical about the compatibility of the roles of scientist and politician. Nevertheless, he remained extremely active in both fields until the end of his life, and thus he resisted the secular trend toward the “pure” scientist. Virchow never fully agreed to the autonomy of science and politics, because he believed in the validity of the laws of progress in both nature and society. So he can be considered as an outstanding exponent of “progressivism” in Germany, which during much of the nineteenth century was based on a close alliance of science and liberalism.

Virchow’s political engagement shifted from radical democratic ideas during the revolution of 1848 to a more moderate liberal stance since his political revival at the end of the 1850s. As a left liberal member of the Berlin City Council, of the Prussian Diet, and for some time also the Reichstag, he was mainly active in fields where he could make use of his scientific authority. Among them, matters of public health and education were most prominent. Also of special importance, however, was his engagement during the cultural war with the Catholic Church during the 1870s. During that conflict Virchow even became an ally of his archenemy, the conservative Prussian minister-president Otto von Bismarck, against whom he had fiercely fought during the constitutional struggle in Prussia of the early 1860s. But there exists a common element between these two struggles: In both cases Virchow fought for the authority of a scientific model of truth for which he claimed universal validity. So while Bismarck tied his assertion of “Truth” and “Trust” to an aristocratic code of honor, Virchow referred to the praxis of modern science by claiming that “truth” and “trust” in the political realm also should be based on empirical examination of facts and observing the laws of logic.

As Virchow tried to extend his scientific authority to the political field, so his political ideas influenced his scientific work. Especially important for the circulation of ideas between the scientific and political field was his use of metaphors. A classical object for the examination of the reciprocal transfer of meanings between biology and society has been Virchow’s cellular pathology. The latter generated a central metaphorical field that encompassed the notions of “cell,” “individual,” and “state.” While in his early days Virchow had defined disease as “life under modified circumstances,” at the end of his career he had adopted the growing militarization of public discourse, and now he tended to define disease as a war, where the body was a beleaguered cell state threatened by external forces.

Science and the Public. Virchow was always eager to disseminate his scientific ideas as elements of political reform. Already in his famous report on the typhus epidemic in Upper Silesia in 1848, Virchow had articulated a paternalistic scientific education program as a means for the development of a bourgeois society. While at that time he still considered the state as a close ally for the education of illiterate “masses,” later he estimated scientific education as a tool to reform the state itself. Virchow aimed at bringing society in accordance with the laws of nature, which should result from “scientific thinking”—which for him in the first instance meant an opposition to “philosophical,” deductive thinking —and “unprejudiced observation.” Thus, he considered scientific knowledge and scientific thinking as important tools for liberal reform of state and society.

As a result, after the 1860s, Virchow more and more stepped into the field of popularization of science. He became one of the most important activists of liberal national education of his time in Germany. Virchow participated in voluntary associations devoted to the education of craftsmen, he published numerous books and series devoted to national education, and he also founded several museums, ranging from the Berlin Ethnological Museum established in 1886 to the Pathological Museum at the Charité, which was opened to the public in 1901. Behind all these publication and museum projects stood the idea of “enlightenment,” which aimed at both destroying “superstition” and strengthening belief in the authority of science. And after the unification of the German Empire in 1871, Virchow even considered the popularization of German science as a device for national homogenization. Therefore, both his later attacks on Catholicism and Darwinism may be explained as consequences of his quest for national unity and scientific authority. While Catholicism in Virchow’s eyes posed a threat of division between national-oriented Protestants and Catholics devoted to a supranational power, the popularization of Darwinism in school curricula meant for him the distribution of still hypothetical knowledge—with all risk of later refutation and consequential concussion of popular trust in science.

Outlook. From the 1880s, Virchow increasingly became a public monument as a symbol of German science. However, he was also more and more criticized both for his growing authoritarianism in the field of science and for his conception of the unity of science and liberalism: The latter no longer fitted either the growing social democratic or the conservative mood in the German Empire. The gap between Virchow’s aspirations—to organize a national liberal consensus by way of the popularization of a scientific style of thought—and the real situation in the German Empire was very much widening. Consequently, already before his death, his public image became more and more defined by his role as the great doctor, while his manifold political activities for a long time came to be considered as a kind of intellectual teething troubles. However, Virchow cannot be properly understood if one does not take into account his peculiar position in the center of a “culture of progress” that for many decades played a decisive role in nineteenth-century Germany.


While the major share of the literary remains of Rudolf Virchow belongs to the Archiv der Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, an additional part can be found at the Pommersches Landesmuseum, Greifswald, Sammlung RablVirchow. Significant segments of Virchow’s publications and literary remains have become available by editions. Most important is the gargantuan project of Christian Andree, an edition of Virchow’s complete writings, which is anticipated to span seventy-one volumes: Rudolf Virchow, Sämtliche Werke, edited by Christian Andree. As of 2007, fifteen volumes had been published (and publishing houses had changed twice).


Die Korrespondenz zwischen Heinrich Schliemann und Rudolf Virchow 1876–1890, bearb. u. hrsg. von Joachim Herrmann und Evelin Maaß in Zusammenarbeit mit Christian Andree und Luise Hallof (Arranged and edited by Joachim Herrmann and Evelin Maaß in cooperation with Christian Andree and Luise Hallof). Berlin: Akademie, 1990.

Anton Dohrn und Rudolf Virchow: Briefwechsel; 1864–1902. Bearb. und mit einer wissenschaftshistorischen Einleitung versehen von Christiane Groeben and Klaus Wenig ( Arranged and provided with an introduction by Christiane Groeben and Klaus Wenig). Berlin: Akademie, 1992.

Beiträge zur wissenschaftlichen Medizin aus den Jahren 1846–1850. Vol. 4 of Sämtliche Werke. Edited by Christian Andree. Bern: Lang, 1992.

Politische Tätigkeit im Preußischen Abgeordnetenhaus (1861–1893). Vols. 30–37 of Sämtliche Werke. Edited by Christian Andree. Bern: Lang, resp. Berlin: Blackwell, 1992 ff.

Rudolf Virchow und Emil du Bois-Reymond. Briefe 1864–1894. Edited by Klaus Wenig. Marburg/Lahn: Basiliken, 1995.

Vorlesungs- und Kursnachschriften aus Würzburg. Wintersemester 1852/53 bis Sommersemester 1854. Vol. 21 of Sämtliche Werke. Edited by Christian Andree. Berlin: Blackwell, 2000.

Briefwechsel mit den Eltern und der Familie. Vol. 59 of Sämtliche Werke. Edited by Christian Andree. Berlin: Blackwell, 2001.

Zur Kraniologie Amerikas. Vol. 52 of Sämtliche Werke. Edited by Christian Andree. Berlin: Blackwell, 2002.

Specielle pathologische Anatomie des Menschen. In der Nachschrift von Friedrich Goll, Sommersemester 1851 in Würzburg. Vol. 20 of Sämtliche Werke. Edited by Christian Andree. Berlin: Blackwell, 2003.


Andree, Christian. Rudolf Virchow als Prähistoriker. 3 vols. Cologne, Germany: Böhlau, 1976–1986.

———. Rudolf Virchow: Leben und Ethos eines großen Arztes. Munich: Langen Müller, 2002. Hero worship at its best.

Boyd, Byron A. Rudolf Virchow: The Scientist as Citizen. New York: Garland, 1991. An excellent description of Virchow’s political career.

Cahan, David. “The Institutional Revolution in German Physics, 1865–1914.” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 15, no. 2 (1984): 1–65.

David, Heinz. Rudolf Virchow und die Medizin des 20. Jahrhunderts. Munich: Quintessenz, 1993. Mostly a collection of Virchow quotations.

Goschler, Constantin. Rudolf Virchow: Mediziner, Anthropologe, Politiker. Cologne, Germany: Boehlau, 2002. A modern biography that focuses on the interrelation of science and politics.

Inspirationen der Medizin durch Virchow: Symposion am 19, Oktober 2002 in Erlangen. Ausgerichtet vom Institut für Geschichte und Ethik der Medizin und vom PathologischAnatomischen Institut der Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. Erlangen and Jena: Palm und Enke, 2003.

Massin, Benoit. “From Virchow to Fischer: Physical Anthropology and ‘Modern Race Theories’ in Wilhelmine Germany.” In Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition, edited by George W. Stocking. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Matyssek, Angela. Rudolf Virchow, das Pathologische Museum: Geschichte einer wissenschaftlichen Sammlung um 1900. Darmstadt: Steinkopff, 2002. A pioneer study on Virchow’s role as collector and displayer.

Mazzolini, Renato G. Stato e organismo, individui e cellule nell’opera di Rudolf Virchow negli anni 1845–1860. Published in the journal Annali dell’Istituto storico italo-germanico in Trento 9 (1983): 153–293. A superb study on the role of metaphors in Virchow’s scientific and political thinking.

McNeely, Ian Farrell. Medicine on a Grand Scale: Rudolf Virchow, Health Politics, and Liberal Social Reform in Nineteenth-Century Germany. London: The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London, 2002. A brilliant analysis of Virchow’s role as medical and social reformer.

Schipperges, Heinrich. Rudolf Virchow. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994. A good overview for the general reader.

Smith, Woodruff D. Politics and the Sciences of Culture in Germany, 1840–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Trautmann-Waller, Céline, ed. Quand Berlin pensait les peuples: Anthropologie, ethnologie et psychologie, 1850–1890. Paris: CNRS, 2004.

Vasold, Manfred. Rudolf Virchow: Der grosse Arzt und Politiker. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1988. Hero worship meets social history.

Weindling, Paul. “Theories of the Cell State in Imperial Germany.” In Biology, Medicine, and Society, 1840–1940, edited by Charles Webster. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Wirth, Ingo. Zur Sektionstätigkeit im Pathologischen Institut der Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin von 1856 bis 1902: Ein Beitrag zur Virchow-Forschung. Berlin: Logos, 2005.

Zimmerman, Andrew. Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Constantin Goschler

About this article

Rudolf Carl Virchow

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About content Print Topic