Rudolf Virchow: Father of Modern Pathology

Pathologist Rudolf Virchow Observing Operation
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Rudolf Virchow (born October 13, 1821 in Shivelbein, Kingdom of Prussia) was a German physician who made a number of strides in medicine, public health, and other fields such as archaeology. Virchow is known as the father of modern pathology—the study of disease. He advanced the theory of how cells form, particularly the idea that every cell comes from another cell.

Virchow’s work helped bring more scientific rigor to medicine. Many prior theories had not been based on scientific observations and experiments.

Fast Facts: Rudolf Virchow

  • Full name: Rudolf Ludwig Carl Virchow
  • Known For: German physician known as the “father of pathology.”
  • Parents’ Names: Carl Christian Siegfried Virchow, Johanna Maria Hesse.
  • Born: October 13, 1821 in Schivelbein, Prussia.
  • Died: September 5, 1902 in Berlin, Germany.
  • Spouse: Rose Mayer.
  • Children: Karl, Hans, Ernst, Adele, Marie, and Hanna Elisabeth.
  • Interesting Fact: Virchow was an advocate for government involvement in public health, increased education, and social medicine—the idea that better social and economic conditions could improve people’s health. He stated that “physicians are the natural advocates of the poor.”

Early Life and Education

Rudolf Virchow was born on October 13, 1821 in Shivelbein, Kingdom of Prussia (now Świdwin, Poland). He was the only child of Carl Christian Siegfried Virchow, a farmer and treasurer, and Johanna Maria Hesse. At a young age, Virchow already exhibited extraordinary intellectual abilities, and his parents paid for extra lessons to advance Virchow's education. Virchow attended the local elementary school at Shivelbein and was the best student in his class in high school.

In 1839, Virchow was awarded a scholarship to study medicine from the Prussian Military Academy, which would prepare him to become an army physician. Virchow studied at the Friedrich-Wilhelm Institut, part of the University of Berlin. There, he worked with Johannes Müller and Johann Schönlein, two medicine professors who exposed Virchow to experimental laboratory techniques.

Rudolph Virchow, German pathologist, 1902.Artist: C Schutte
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Work

After graduating in 1843, Virchow became an intern at a German teaching hospital in Berlin, where he learned the basics of microscopy and the theories on the causes and treatment of diseases while working with Robert Froriep, a pathologist.

At the time, scientists believed that they could understand nature by working from first principles rather than concrete observations and experiments. As such, many theories were incorrect or misleading. Virchow aimed to change medicine to become more scientific, based on data gathered from the world.

Virchow became a licensed doctor in 1846, traveling to Austria and Prague. In 1847, he became an instructor at the University of Berlin. Virchow had a profound impact on German medicine and taught a number of people who would later become influential scientists, including two of the four physicians who founded Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Virchow also began a new journal called Archives for Pathological Anatomy and Physiology and Clinical Medicine with a colleague in 1847. The journal is now known as "Virchow’s Archives" and remains an influential publication in pathology.

In 1848, Virchow helped evaluate typhus outbreaks in Silesia, a poor area in what is now Poland. This experience impacted Virchow and he became an advocate for government involvement in public health, increased education, and social medicine—the idea that better social and economic conditions could improve people’s health. In 1848, for example, Virchow helped establish a weekly publication called Medical Reform, which promoted social medicine and the idea that “physicians are the natural advocates of the poor.”

In 1849, Virchow became the chair in pathological anatomy at the University of Würzberg in Germany. At Würzberg, Virchow helped establish cellular pathology—the idea that disease stems from changes in healthy cells. In 1855, he published his famous saying, omnis cellula e cellula (“Every cell comes from another cell”). Although Virchow was not the first to come up with this idea, it gathered much more recognition thanks to Virchow’s publication.

In 1856, Virchow became the first director of the Pathological Institute at the University of Berlin. Alongside his research, Virchow remained active in politics, and in 1859 was elected as the city councilor of Berlin, a position he held for 42 years. As city councilor, he helped improve, among other things, Berlin’s meat inspection, water supply, and hospital systems. He was also active in Germany’s national politics, becoming a founding member of the German Progressive Party.

In 1897, Virchow was recognized for 50 years of service to the University of Berlin. In 1902, Virchow jumped out of a moving tram and injured his hip. His health continued to deteriorate until his death later that year.

Personal Life

Virchow married Rose Mayer, the daughter of a colleague, in 1850. They had six children together: Karl, Hans, Ernst, Adele, Marie, and Hanna Elisabeth.

Honors and Awards

Virchow was given a number of awards during his lifetime for both his scientific and political accomplishments, including:

  • 1861, Foreign Member, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
  • 1862, Member, Prussian House of Representatives
  • 1880, Member, Reichstag of the German Empire
  • 1892, Copley Medal, British Royal Society

A number of medical terms have also been named after Virchow.

Death

Virchow died on September 5, 1902 in Berlin, Germany, due to heart failure. He was 80 years old.

Legacy and Impact

Virchow made a number of important advances in medicine and public health, including recognizing leukemia and describing myelin, though he is most well known for his work in cellular pathology. He also contributed to anthropology, archaeology, and other fields outside of medicine.

Leukemia

Virchow performed autopsies that involved looking at body tissue underneath the microscope. As a result of one of these autopsies, he identified and named the disease leukemia, which is a cancer that affects the bone marrow and blood.

Zoonosis

Virchow discovered that the human disease trichinosis could be traced to parasitic worms in raw or undercooked pork. This discovery, along with other research at the time, led Virchow to postulate zoonosis, a disease or infection that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

Cellular pathology

Virchow is most known for his work on cellular pathology—the idea that disease stems from changes in healthy cells, and that each disease only affects a certain set of cells rather than the entire organism. Cellular pathology was groundbreaking in medicine because diseases, which were previously categorized by symptoms, could be much more precisely defined and diagnosed with anatomy, resulting in more effective treatments.

Sources

  • Kearl, Megan. “Rudolf Carl Virchow (1821-1902).” The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, Arizona State University, 17 Mar. 2012, embryo.asu.edu/pages/rudolf-carl-virchow-1821-1902.
  • Reese, David M. “Fundamentals: Rudolf Virchow and Modern Medicine.” The Western Journal of Medicine, vol. 169, no. 2, 1998, pp. 105–108.
  • Schultz, Myron. “Rudolf Virchow.” Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 14, no. 9, 2008, pp. 1480–1481.
  • Stewart, Doug. “Rudolf Virchow.” Famouscientists.org, Famous Scientists, www.famousscientists.org/rudolf-virchow/.
  • Underwood, E. Ashworth. “Rudolf Virchow: German Scientist.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 May 1999, www.britannica.com/biography/Rudolf-Virchow.