Archives of Medicine and Health Sciences

: 2015  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 145--147

Rudolf Carl Virchow: A multifaceted personality

Prema Saldanha1, Julian Saldanha2,  
1 Department of Pathology, Yenepoya Medical College, Mangalore, Karnataka, India
2 Department of General Medicine, Government Wenlock District Hospital, Mangalore, Karnataka, India

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Dr. Prema Saldanha
Department of Pathology, Yenepoya Medical College, Mangalore - 575 018, Karnataka

How to cite this article:
Saldanha P, Saldanha J. Rudolf Carl Virchow: A multifaceted personality.Arch Med Health Sci 2015;3:145-147

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Saldanha P, Saldanha J. Rudolf Carl Virchow: A multifaceted personality. Arch Med Health Sci [serial online] 2015 [cited 2023 Jan 30 ];3:145-147
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Eponyms in medicine immortalise the name of the scientist as well as highlighting the greatness of his/her contribution to the field. The names of the conditions become popular and one often forgets the personality who contributed the same.

Rudolf Carl Virchow [Figure1] is known as "The Father of Modern Pathology" or "The Father of Cellular Pathology" as well as "The Founder of Modern Medicine". Virchow was a great doctor, a renowned pathologist, an anthropologist, a prehistorian, a biologist, as well as a writer, editor and a well-known politician of the 19 th century. He was the pioneer of the modern concept of pathological processes by his application of the "cell theory". He emphasized that diseases arose primarily in individual cells of the tissues. Besides his role as a scientist, he campaigned vigorously for social reforms and contributed to the development of anthropology as a modern science. His work helped to discredit the 'theory of humors" bringing about a scientific basis to medicine. He is also considered as one of the founders of social medicine.{Figure1}

Virchow was born on October 13, 1821, in Schivelbein, Pomerania, Prussia then in eastern Prussia, but since 1945, a part of Northwestern Poland. [1],[2],[3],[4]

He belonged to a family of farmers in Germany. He studied medicine and chemistry in Berlin at the Prussian Military Academy from 1839-1843 on a scholarship and after graduation went to serve at the Charité Hospital. At this time, the German medical approach was still traditional. [1],[2],[3],[4] At Charité, he studied microscopy alongside with Robert Froriep. Froriep was the editor of a journal that specialised in foreign work, exposing Virchow to the more forward-looking scientific ideas of France and England. [1]

In 1848, he qualified as a lecturer at the University of Berlin. Unlike his German peers, Virchow used to have great interest in clinical observation, experimentation on animals and pathological anatomy. He wanted to determine causes of diseases and the effects of drugs particularly at the microscopic level. Called "Hippocrates with the microscope", Tan he stated the "cell" was the basic unit of the body that had to be studied to understand disease. [1],[2] One of Virchow's major contributions to German medical education was to encourage the use of microscopes by medical students, and he was well-known for constantly urging his students to "think microscopically". [5]

In August 1850, in Berlin, Virchow married Ferdinande Rosalie Mayer. They had three sons and three daughters, Karl, a chemist, Hans, a prominent anatomist, Adele who married Rudolf Henning, an eminent professor of German studies, Ernst, Marie, the wife of Carl Rabl, a prominent Austrian anatomist and Hanna. [5]

He kept publishing his theories, but as his writings were not receiving favorable attention from German editors, he joined Benno Reinhardt in founding the "Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie und für klinische Medizin (Archives for Pathologic Anatomy and Physiology and Clinical Medicine world)" famous today as the "Virchows Archiv." This journal began publishing high-level contributions based on the sound scientific evidence. He continued to edit it alone from Reinhardt's death in 1852 until his own. [1],[2],[3],[4]

Besides being a pathologist, Virchow was an impassioned advocate for social and political reform. His own statement "Medicine is a social science, and the science of human beings, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale. Medicine, as a social science along with politics has the obligation to point out problems and to attempt to find a solution". [1],[2],[3],[4]

In 1848, 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 famous and 'controversial' "Report on the Typhus Outbreak of Upper Silesia" where he states the outbreak could not be solved by treating individual patients with drugs or with minor changes in food, housing, or clothing, 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". [1],[2],[4],[6],[7],[8]

In 1849, he was employed as chair of Pathological Anatomy at the University of Würzburg. However, his radical statements and a minor part in the revolution caused the government to remove him from his position. [1],[2],[4]

By 1856, Virchow was asked to return from Wüürzburg to the Charité Hospital in Berlin. This reinstatement was evidence of the name he was achieving for himself in scientific and medical circles. He next became Director of the Pathological Institute and remained in charge of the clinical section of the hospital for the next 20 years. [5]

His most widely known scientific contribution is his "cell theory", which was built on the work of Theodor Schwann. Virchow published it in 1858 in the epigram Omnis cellula e cellula ("Every cell originates from another existing cell like it."). [1],[3]

Another significant credit was the discovery, made almost simultaneously by Virchow and Charles Emile Troisier, was that an enlarged left supraclavicular node is one of the earliest signs of gastrointestinal malignancy, commonly of the stomach, or less commonly, of lung cancer. This has been called as Virchow's node and the Troisier's sign. [1],[5]

Virchow is also known for explaining the mechanism of pulmonary thromboembolism, coining the terms 'embolism' and 'thrombosis'. He noted that blood-clots within 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". He had made these initial discoveries based on autopsies. Related to this research, Virchow described the factors contributing to venous thrombosis, 'Virchow's triad'. [3],[9]

Virchow also developed a standard method of clinical autopsy procedure, named after him, and his technique is still used today by pathologists.

In 1859, he became a member of the Municipal Council of Berlin and began his career as a civic reformer. He was elected to the Prussian Diet in 1862, and became leader of the Radical or Progressive party; and from 1880-1893, he was a member of the Reichstag (German Parliament). He worked to improve the health-care conditions for the Berlin citizens, working towards modern water supply and sewer systems. Virchow has been credited as a founder of social medicine. [1],[4]

In 1861, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Society for Medical Anthropology gives an annual award in Virchow's name - the Rudolf Virchow Award. [5]

He was a leading political antagonist of Bismarck. He was opposed to Bismarck's lavish military budget. This angered Bismarck sufficiently to challenge Virchow to a duel (popularly called the "sausage duel") in 1865. Of the two versions, one records Virchow declining because he considered duelling an uncivilized way to solve a conflict. The second, is the better known, and well-documented in the contemporary scientific literature. It has Virchow, having been the one challenged and therefore entitled to choose the weapon, selecting two pork sausages, a normal sausage and another one, loaded with Trichinella larvae. His challenger had to decline as the proposition seemed too risky! Virchow had keen interest in helminthology and had studied Trichenella spiralis, the knowledge of which helped him in the duel. [1],[3],[4],[5]

In 1869, Virchow founded the Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory which was very influential in coordinating and intensifying German archaeological research, and of which he was President several times. For his contributions to German archaeology, the 'Rudolf Virchow' lecture is held annually in his honor. In 1892, he was awarded the Copley Medal. [1],[3],[5]

Virchow died of heart failure in Berlin on September 5, 1902 at the age of 81 years. [1],[5] A great personality immortalized in the field of modern medicine!

Virchow is credited with many important discoveries. He was also a very prolific writer and has more than ten major works in German. Translations into English and other languages have been attempted. [4],[6]

Medical terms named after Virchow (compiled from various sources).

Virchow's angle (Virchow-Holder angle): The angle between the nasobasilar line and the nasosubnasal line.

Virchow's fifth cardinal sign of inflammation: Functio laesa (loss of function).

Virchow's cell (lepra 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 corpuscles: Corneal corpuscles.

Virchow's crystals: Yellow-brown, amber, or orange crystals of hematoidin, frequently observed in extravasated blood in tissues.

Virchow's degeneration: Amyloidosis.

Virchow's disease: Leontiasis ossea/acute congenital encephalitis.

Virchow's gland/Virchow's lymph node (Troisier's sign) the presence of metastatic cancer in a supraclavicular lymph node.

Virchow-Hassall bodies: Hassall bodies/thymic corpuscles.

Virchow's Law: Related to craniosynostosis.

Virchow's line: A line from the root of the nose to the lambda.

Virchow's metamorphosis [10] : Lipomatosis in the heart & salivary glands.

Virchow's method of autopsy: A method of autopsy where each organ is taken out one by one.

Virchow's psammoma: Psammomatous meningiomas.

Virchow-Robin spaces: Enlarged perivascular spaces that surround blood vessels for a short distance as they enter the brain.

Virchow-Seckel syndrome: "Bird-headed dwarfism".

Virchow's triad: The classic factors which precipitate venous thrombus formation: Endothelial dysfunction or injury, hemodynamic changes and hypercoagulability.


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