Virchow, Rudolf

views updated Jun 08 2018


VIRCHOW, RUDOLF (1821–1902), German pathologist and anthropologist.

Rudolf Virchow contributed to the transformation of medical knowledge in the nineteenth century and was a founding figure for the discipline of anthropology in Germany. He was born in Schivelbein, Pomerania (today Swidwin in northwest Poland), on 13 October 1821 and died in Berlin on 5 September 1902. After receiving his degree in 1843, Virchow practiced medicine in Berlin until he was suspended for his radical political views during the revolutions of 1848. He accepted a faculty position in Würzburg and returned to Berlin in 1856. He became the leading figure at Berlin's Pathological Institute, where he worked for forty-six years and trained generations of doctors and scientists.

As a coeditor and leading author of several medical handbooks, Virchow published the findings of contemporary clinical research. His pathbreaking Die Cellularpathologie (1858; Cellular Pathology) argued that cells are the building blocks of higher units of life and that they are mutually dependent. This attention to the vital nature of cells produced a series of new ideas about the formation and spread of disease. Before Virchow and his generation, doctors viewed disease primarily as a problem in the body's blood stream (the humors) or as an affliction of the nervous system. Virchow's microscopic study of cells challenged traditional views of illness by arguing that cells themselves were healthy or diseased. This discovery is central to modern medicine's understanding of tumors and cancer.

Virchow vigorously advocated applications of scientific knowledge beyond the laboratory. His reports on infectious diseases in central Europe from 1848 and 1852 urged doctors to lead the fight for better sanitation conditions and higher levels of literacy and prosperity among rural populations. After his return to Berlin in 1856, Virchow served on the city council as a public health expert. He campaigned for a modern sewer system in the city and promoted improvements in the heating and ventilation of public institutions, such as hospitals, schools, military barracks, and prisons. Following his research on parasitic worms as the cause of trichinosis, Virchow started a vigorous campaign for meat inspection in 1872. These reforms grew out of Virchow's belief that science would bring progress to society, and they were part of the broad program of nineteenth-century liberalism that championed rational thinking and positive state reforms.

Virchow also had a career on the national political stage. In the 1860s, he opposed Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck's plans for military spending in the Prussian Diet. After the unification of Germany in 1871, Virchow supported the national Kulturkampf (the "cultural struggle" to eliminate the influence of Catholicism in politics and education). He felt that science and rationality would flourish in a state free of clerical influence. Virchow served as a delegate to the German Empire's Reichstag from 1880 to 1893.

From the 1860s until his death, Virchow shaped the fields of prehistoric archaeology and anthropology in Germany. He championed an empirical approach to archaeology that eschewed patriotic or romantic conclusions and challenged the idea that prehistoric finds were directly related to contemporary national communities. Virchow was also active outside central Europe as a delegate to international conferences and as an archaeologist in Egypt, Turkey, and central Asia. Virchow was equally significant as the organizer of the German Anthropological Society and the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory, the most important networks for anthropology and archaeology in Germany. Virchow's reputation as a leading scientist contributed to the status of these organizations, and his efforts helped to secure state support for Berlin's Museum for Ethnology, which opened in 1886.

Traditional scholarship has admired Virchow's achievements in medicine and anthropology and presented him as a champion of objective science and rational reforms. Recent work, however, has placed Virchow, German anthropology, and liberalism's faith in science in a broader intellectual context. In this rendering, Virchow's interest in studying human beings during an epoch of national strength and imperialism contributed to the rise of biological racism in Germany. This contrasts the idea of categorizing human differences, which underpinned nineteenth-century anthropological thought, with Virchow's liberal politics and his public rejection of anti-Semitism and ethnic definitions of nation-states. Beyond this debate about the place of anthropology within German history, Virchow stands as an extraordinary individual. By the 1890s, he knew nine languages and was recognized internationally as a tireless researcher and a master synthesizer of medical and anthropological knowledge. He was named to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1873 and chosen as rector of the University of Berlin in 1893. Virchow was a true polymath who was able to grasp and shape entire fields of study in a way that would be unimaginable in the twenty-first century's era of scientific specialization.

See alsoPublic Health.


Ackerknecht, Erwin. Rudolf Virchow: Doctor, Statesman, Anthropologist. Madison, Wisc., 1953. An admiring survey of Virchow's major ideas and publications.

McNeely, Ian. "Medicine on a Grand Scale": Rudolf Virchow, Liberalism, and the Public Health. London, 2002. Draws attention to the connection between political liberalism, science, and public health policies.

Zimmerman, Andrew. Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany. Chicago, 2001. A recent study that connects Virchow and German anthropology to the history of imperialism and the rise of scientific worldviews.

Brent Maner

Virchow, Rudolf

views updated May 18 2018

Virchow, Rudolf (1821–1902) A German pathologist and anthropologist (and also a politician of liberal views) whose studies of pathogenic organisms led him to the discovery that cells are derived from other cells, which he summarized as omnis cellula e cellula (‘every cell from a cell’).