Rudolf Carl Virchow

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Rudolf Carl Virchow


German Physician, Pathologist and Anthropologist

Rudolf Virchow was one of the most prominent German physicians of the nineteenth century, and his success reflected the rising influence and organization of the German medical community after 1840. Working as an activist for public health, Virchow merged the social and political reform movements with the developing German medical community, and he believed that medicine was the ultimate science of man.

In 1839, when Virchow began studying medicine at Berlin's Friedrich-Wilhelms Institut, German medicine was mostly theoretical and did not deal extensively with the clinical problems or experimental techniques. Virchow, however, was trained by Johannes Müller and Johann L. Schönlein, two of the first German teachers to promote experimental laboratory methods, physical diagnostic methods, and epidemiological analyses. After he completed his medical degree at the University of Berlin in 1843, Virchow repaid his military commitment by serving as the surgeon at the Charité Hospital in Berlin. His doctoral dissertation was on the corneal manifestations of rheumatic disease, and during his work at the Charité Hospital he performed microscopic studies on vascular inflammation and the problems of thrombosis and embolism.

Beginning around 1845 Virchow articulated a new vision for the German medical community that he believed would shift it away from being a largely theoretical activity. In speeches at the Friedrich-Wilhelms Institut he asserted that doctors could advance their science by making clinical observations, performing animal experimentation, and studying microscopic pathological anatomy.

His work during the typhus epidemic in 1848, when he saw economically and socially disadvantaged Poles suffer disproportionately from the disease, encouraged Virchow to integrate his liberal social and political views with his work as a physician. He called for the enactment of new political, educational, and economic reforms, which he justified on the basis of their potential to improve public health, and he asserted that every individual had a constitutional right to good health. The defeat of these proposals, combined with his attacks on his older colleagues' promotion of humoralism (the idea that the body's health depended on various "humors" within), led to Virchow's ouster from the Charité Hospital in 1849.

Virchow worked at the University of Würzburg as a pathological anatomist throughout the first half of the 1850s. These years marked the height of his scientific work and teaching activities, and his students included Edwin Klebs (1833-1913), Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), and Adolf Kussmaul (1822-1902). He continued this work when, in 1856, he accepted an invitation to become the director of the newly established Pathological Institute. As director, Virchow resumed his work linking the advancement of the German medical community with political reformism. He highlighted the value of clinical observation and experimentation, and he condemned the "speculative" methods of earlier medical doctors. Newly improved microscopes and biochemical techniques allowed Virchow to reduce processes to the cellular level and effectively modernize medicine by attacking the existing humoral and neural physiopatholgical interpretations of disease.

The last decades of Virchow's life were largely devoted to his promotion of anthropology. He encouraged work in physical anthropology by studying the physical characteristics of Germans and by performing a racial survey of German schoolchildren. His work led him to argue that there was not one German race, but rather a mixture of different types organized under one social and political system. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s he participated in archeological projects in Pomerania, Hissarlik, and Egypt. His interests in anthropology and his substantial political and professional influence led to his role as cofounder of the German Anthropological Society in 1869. He was also instrumental in the building of the Berlin Ethnological Museum and the Museum of German Folklore.