Rudolf Ludwig Karl Virchow was born on the 13th of October, 1821 in Schivelbein, Pomerania, Prussia (part of Poland now), and he died on the 5th of September 1902 in Berlin. He was the only child of the treasurer Karl Christian Virchow and his wife Johanna Maria, née Hesse, who was taking care of the household and the well-being of their child.
First, he attended school in Schivelbein, and then he went to grammar school in Kôslin until 1839. In the same year, he began to study medicine at the famous Pépinière in Berlin, which was a military university. In 1843, he was awarded the doctor of medicine and began to work as a military surgeon at the Charité, a famous hospital in Berlin. A year later, he was made assistant of Robert Froriep, and in 1845 he wrote his first articles, which dealt with (blood) clotting and leukemia in Froriep’s Neue Notizen.
After finishing a further thesis (Habilitation) in 1847, he became Privatdozent, which implies the right to lecture ( venia legendi) and can be compared to an associate professorship. In the same year, he and his friend Benno Reinhardt founded the journal Archiv fur pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie und fur klinische Medizin (Archives for Pathological Anatomy and Physiology, and for Clinical Medicine), which was later known as Virchows Archiv. He remained the editor until his death, and from 1852 onward (following the death of Reinhardt) he was the sole editor. For a short period of time (July 1848-June 1849), he was also in charge of the weekly magazine Die medicinische Reform, a journal he had founded together with Rudolf Leubuscher, and in which he already demanded that standardized medical laws for whole of Germany, a ministry for public health care, a medical academy, and a radical reform of the public health system. At that time, he also investigated a typhoid epidemic that had broken out in Upper Silesia. In the report that he wrote for the government, he suggested that a proper democracy and education for all is supposed to lead to freedom and well-being.
As Virchow was very active politically and always defending a liberal political position, he got into trouble with the government, and was eventually suspended from his post at the Charité. However, in the same year he was also offered the chair of pathological anatomy at the University of Wurzburg, which was the first of that kind in Germany. A year later, he married Rose Mayer (1832-1913). Together they had three daughters and three sons.
Not only his private but also his professional life flourished during his 7 years in Würzburg, and in 1855 the notion of Cellularpathologie (cellular pathology) appears for the first time, and, together with it, the concept of a new pathology. His assistant in Würzburg was Ernst Haeckel.
In 1856, Virchow accepted the offer for a chair at the University of Berlin, and he also became the director of the newly founded pathological institute. Two years later he published his most important medical work entitled Die Cellularpathologie in ihrer Begruendung physiologische und pathologische Gewebelehre. He was elected to the Berlin City council in 1859, on which he remained active until his death. Two years later, he also became a member of the Prussian parliament, and he was one of the founders of the Deutschen Fortschrittspartei (another founding member was the famous historian and lawyer Theodor Mommsen). He was a relentless opponent in particular of Otto von Bismarck, with whom he even would have had a duel with pistols if the minister of war had not interfered. As a consequence of his political involvements, significant changes in the public health care system in Berlin took place, a sewage system was built, and a central water supply was provided. Berlin became one of the cleanest big cities in Europe. In addition, many other improvements were made, like the construction of four local hospitals, or the training of nurses independent of ecclesiastical organizations.
During the German-French war (1870-1871), Virchow organized hospital trains. In 1873, he became a member of the Academy of Arts. During that time, he dedicated himself further to the study of anthropology, taken in an extremely broad sense, as he holds that anthropology deals with the history and the future of humanity. He had already founded the Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte in 1869. At a conference in 1876 in Hamburg, he declared the goals and methods of modern anthropology in detail, and in the same year in Berlin, he gave a widely noted presentation about the anthropology of the Germans. It is interesting to note that, although he was sympathetic to Darwin’s theories, he did not regard himself as a disciple of Darwin, as he explained in a speech in Munich in 1877. In addition, he also made some significant contributions to the field of archaeology, particularly in Germany. However, together with Heinrich Schliemann, he also traveled to Troy in 1879, and because of his friendship with Schliemann and some adequate negotiations, Schliemann donated to the museum of ethnology in Berlin some of his immense treasures. From 1880 to 1893, Virchow was a member of the German Reichstag. In 1888, he traveled to Egypt together with Schliemann. At his 80th birthday, he received honors from all over the world, and in an expression of thanks he replied to all the honors he received in 1901. After fracturing the head of his femur when jumping off a tram in the Leipzigerstrasse in Berlin, he did not recover. He died on the 5th of September 1902 in Berlin.
During the 19th and parts of the 20th century, anthropology was a part of the discipline of medicine, which is the reason why it was often described as physical anthropology. Virchow also started to be concerned with anthropology via medicine. He was a humanist, and his humanism was based on the natural sciences, its authentic expression being anthropology. His understanding of anthropology was extremely broad, concerned with the whole of the human nature, which includes outer, objective as well as inner, subjective experiences. Regarding anthropology, his thinking was primarily concerned with the questions: What is the origin, and what will be the further development of human beings?
Before mentioning some of his work in anthropology, an overview of Virchow’s method and his understanding of the natural sciences must be provided. Virchow had a particular theory of knowledge, which he presented in Stettin in 1863. According to this theory, scientists are concerned with facts rather than speculations, but he also stressed that it is important for them to be clear about the facts so that they can be interpreters. He regularly stressed the importance of the distinction between facts and speculations, or between knowledge and belief, and that it is necessary not to give too much weight to our speculations and not to use them for constructing a complete world-view. Facts can be reached by means of empirical experiments. Besides the relevance of the empirical data, Virchow stresses the importance of logic. Thereby, he does not refer to logic in an idiosyncratic sense, but rather to the Ancient, well-founded logic. All premises primarily need to be based on sense perceptions and experiences, but not on any kind of speculation. By means of logic, one can then infer further insights that, of course, are open to interpretation. Yet, one always has to be clear about what is an insight and what is a speculation, and one also should not yield to the temptation to construct a system on the basis of the interpretations of ones insights. The realm of consciousness cannot be investigated thus by natural scientists, as this area is connected too closely to the individual, and therefore one cannot get facts about the deeds of the consciousness.
Because Virchow thought that there is an inner connection between all aspects of the apparent realm, he tried to establish a scientific theory that is valid for all scientific branches. He referred to that theory as Einheitswissenschaft, unified science, whereby he meant that the same method was supposed to be applied in all natural sciences, as all of them are supposed to look for the same thing, namely the law of becoming, and he tried to apply that theory to medicine as well. Medicine, however, is not a simple natural science. Natural sciences are concerned with bodies only, whereas medicine is supposed to deal with the laws of body and mind, but also in a solely positivist manner. Therefore, it is the highest and most noble natural science. Virchow sees a medic as a modern type of natural philosopher.
He admits that he might be wrong concerning some specific details that he had put forward, but that it is his most basic conviction, and one which he can never abandon, that human nature is unified. The same laws of life can be found in a healthy as well as ill person because it is only the manifestation of the laws that is different. Therefore, one should no longer be concerned with physiological pathology, as that notion attributes a specific ontological status to diseases, but one should only be concerned with physiology whereby pathological physiology should be a specific field of physiology. Healing, in that case, means nothing but bringing about the normal conditions of life with which physiology is concerned. Pathology deals with the altered conditions of life, and therapy with the methods of retransforming them back to normal. Virchow’s categories remind one of a scheme that can be found in more traditional types of medicine that distinguishes between theoretical and practical medicine whereby the theoretical field is divided up into physiology (res naturales), pathology (res contra naturam), and hygiene (res non naturales), and the practical field, which includes surgery (Chirurgia), pharmacy (materia medica), and dietetics (Diaita).
What was lacking so far was a theory of medicine, and by this he primarily meant a pathological physiology. Anatomy, therefore, could only be the entrance hall to authentic medicine, which is the science of healing, which again had to be founded on a complete and holistic understanding of human beings whereby one enters the realm of anthropology—a realm that is the most basic part of the medical realm. Because the fundamental component of human beings as well as of other living things is the cell, according to Virchow, he dedicated a great amount of work to that field.
In 1858 in Karlsruhe, Virchow presented the insight that life is the deeds of a cell, and that the particularities of life are identical with the particularities of a cell. He postulated that life can be explained by reference to the anatomical and chemical composition of a substance because everything that happens in nature happens in a causal and necessary manner, and this law applies to both the organic as well as the inorganic realm. Yet Virchow also stressed that he was not a materialist.
Having clarified Virchow’s scientific method and the relationship of anthropology to the other sciences, some of his anthropological findings should be mentioned. Originally, Virchow held that there is s direct link between the size of a skull and the cultural and intellectual state of development of humanity. In addition, he held that not only the size but also the aesthetic qualities of a skull are relevant for ones intellectual capacities. However, the more skulls he investigated, the more he doubted these positions. As he did not wish to put forward unfounded theories, he dedicated himself to collecting empirical data, which meant that Virchow had an enormous collection of skulls. From this data, Virchow inferred that there is a distinction between the biological and the cultural development of human beings—a position that was opposed to the evolutionism dominant in Britain. Virchow’s theory was based on the thesis of the unchangingness of the human race, as defended by his former pupil, the anthropologist Julius Kollmann. However, in contrast to Kollmann he did not hold the absolute permanence of human beings, but claimed that human beings could not have developed from great apes during the period of time for which we have empirical data. The question concerning the origin of human beings can only be answered philosophically; however, it was his intention to deal only with theories that could be based on solid empirical data. In principle, he acknowledged the descent of human beings from great apes as a hypothesis.
- Boyd, B. A. (1991). Rudolf Virchow: The scientist as citizen. New York: Taylor & Francis.
- Rather, L. J. (1990). Commentary on the medical writings of Rudolf Virchow: Based on Schwalbe ‘s Virchow-Bibliographie, 1843-1901. San Francisco: Jeremy Norman.
- Virchow, R. L. K. (1971). Cellular pathology as based upon physiological and pathological histology. New York: Dover.
- Virchow, R. L. K. (1985). Collected essays on public health and epidemiology (Vols. 1-2, L. J. Rather, Ed.). Canton, MA: Watson Publishing International.