Autobiographical Outline of Rudolf Virchow

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1821   Born in Pomerania; 1 medical study in


1843   Graduated in Berlin. Inaug. dissertation: De

              rheumate praesertim cornea. 2

1843-46  Junior surgeon 3 in the Charité Hospital. 4

Easter 1846  Prosector of Charité. (Successor of Robert

                  Froriep 5 at his recommendation.)

1847     Privatdozent 6 at the Univerisity. Lectures on

                pathological & surgical anatomy.

                Establishment of the Archives for Pathological Anatomy &

                   Physiology & Clinical Medicine, 7 together with

                   Benno Reinhardt, 8 after his death (1852) sole

                   editor. At present, 16 published volumes. 9

February 1848 Sent by the Cultusminister 10 to Upper Silesia 11

             in order to study the typhus epidemic.

             Described in "Reports on the Typhus

             Epidemics of Upper Silesia, 1848." 12

May 1848 - May 1849   Editor of "The Medical Reform" 13

         a medical-political weekly, the continuation of

         which was impossible on account of the state of siege.

Easter 1849  Suspended because of political reasons. 14

Fall 1849   Call 15 as full professor of Path. Anatomy

          to Würzburg. At the time of departure from Berlin, publication

          of the "Attempts at Unifying Scientific Medi-

          cine", 16 a frank presentation of the principles.

Easter 17 1849   Participation in the founding of the Physico-

      medical Society 18in Würzburg, as first

      secretary & member of the editorial committee for

      publishing the proceedings; 1852-54 President.


Dr. Thor Jager's transcription of this page.

1. Pomerania was a Prussian province located on the northern Baltic Sea coastline of what is now Poland and partly Germany. The geographic area is roughly contained between the Oder and Vistula rivers. During Virchow’s lifetime, the Prussian provinces bordering Pomerania would have been as follows: Mecklenburg on the west, West Prussia on the east, and Posen and Brandenburg provinces to the south. The land was alternately ruled and controlled by German nobles, Polish nobles and even Sweden briefly. Prussia acquired Pomerania in 1815. The unified German Empire was the last to control the region before it was completely given to Poland after World War II. Virchow was born on October 13, 1821 in the town of Schivelbein (Swidwin) which is located about thirty-five south and a little west of Köslin (Koszalin) where he attended gymnasium from 1835-1839. Back

Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., s.v. "Pomerania."; Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., s.v. "Germany."

2. On Rheumatic Disease, particulary of the Cornea. The actual date of Virchow’s public defense of his dissertation and promotion to doctor was on October 21, 1843. The essence of his dissertation is that rheumatism is actually a state of irritation and not an inflammatory disease or a simple inflammation. He proposes that the irritant itself is not an acid, but rather of an albuminous nature.

As was customary for the time, in addition to the dissertation eight Latin theses or aphorisms were also presented for public discussion and defense.The theses/aphorisms are listed below.

  1. Nisi qui liberalibus rebus favent, veram medicanae indolem non cognoscunt.

  2. Animus non aegrotat.

  3. Inflammatio febris localis.

  4. Morbo endemio endemium medicamen.

  5. Hemeralopia pellucidorum oculi mutatio.

  6. Lunatismus equi rheuma hydatodeae.

  7. Morbus cardiacus neurophlogosis cordis.

  8. Pomeraniae petrificata glacie primordiali (Agassiz) disjecta.

According to a letter to Virchow’s father dated 25 October 1843, he was opposed by three of his colleagues whom he picked himself and another colleague (not of his choice) arose from the audience to oppose him. The three colleagues Virchow chose were Gustav Zimmerman, Albert Johow, and Albert Fouquet.Virchow did not mention the name of the person who arose from the audience to oppose him, although he did write that he was not on good terms with him. Back

W. Becher, Rudolph Virchow, Eine biographische Studie (Berlin: Karger, 1891);Rudolph Virchow, Briefe an seine Eltern, 1839 bis 1864, ed. M. Rabl (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907); L. J. Rather, A Commentary on the Medical Writings of Rudolph Virchow (San Francisco: Norman Publishing, 1990).

3. In a letter to his father on March 17, 1843, Virchow explains that because of the illness and retirement of a senior colleague an opening for a surgeon had developed at the Charité and he was offered a position. He further wrote that after some thought he accepted the prestigious offer on the condition that he be allowed to remain in the Charité for a year and a half. He even signed the letter as "Charité-surgeon". In subsequent letters to his father, Virchow went into some detail describing the layout of Charité and his new duties. He writes of his work in the ophthalmology ward, the prisoner and scabies ward, internal disease ward, and the psychiatric ward. It appears that he was well liked and grew attached to his patients as evident by his account of getting tears in his eyes when leaving one of his rotations. Virchow’s description of his duties most matches the job in our time of a rotating clinical medical student or intern. In the original text of the outline, Virchow used the term "Unterarzt" to describe this clinical position in the Charité. Ackerknecht in his biography referred to Virchow’s position as a "company surgeon". In this translation, the term "junior surgeon" is used to reflect the nature of his position. Back

Rudolph Virchow, Briefe an siene Eltern, 1839 bis 1864, ed. M. Rabl (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907);
Virchow’s Archiv 167 (1902): 3.


5. Robert Froriep (1804-1861) served as prosector at the Charité Hospital in Berlin from 1833 to1846. While prosector, Froriep augmented his income by working at a private clinic and teaching anatomic drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts. Although he succeeded in establishing the Prosector’s Department by improving the size and extent of the collection of specimens, he was unsure of his department’s place within the hierarchy of the Charité and he endured a rocky relationship with Johannes Müller. When his father became ill, he took the opportunity to leave his position as prosector and moved to Weimar in the spring of 1846. It was Froriep’s influence that helped introduce Virchow to British and French scientific publications. In 1843, it appears Virchow began microscopic work with Froriep and in 1845 he published his work on fibrin and "white blood" in Froriep’s Neue Notizen which was reprinted in Virchow’s Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur wissentschaftlichen Medizin ("Collected Essays on Scientific Medicine"). It was also Froriep’s suggestion to Virchow to begin his independent research investigating Cruveilhier’s assertion that phlebitis dominated all pathology. From Virchow’s outline we learn that Froriep recommended Virchow for the job as prosector. Back

Rudolph Virchow, Briefe an seine Eltern, 1839 bis 1864, ed. M. Rabl (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907); Erwin H. Ackerknecht, Rudolph Virchow: Doctor, Statesman, Anthropologist (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1953); P. Krietsch, "Zur Geschichte der Prosektor der Charité Berlin. 2. Mittheilung. Robert Friedrich Froriep, Prosektor der Charité von 1833 bis 1846," Zentralbl. Allg. Pathol., 1990, 136: 729-38.

6. A Privatdocent is a qualified and degreed lecturer or tutor at a university who is not paid. In the United States, an equivalent of such a position is difficult to find. The usage of the term "docent" as a university or college staff member just below the rank of professor has its origins in the original German usage. Back

The Oxford English Dictionary, second ed., s.v. "docent."

7. Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie und für klinische Medicin. This publication is also now simply known as Virchow’s Archiv. Back

8. Benno Reinhardt (1819-1852) was a colleague and good friend of Virchow’s during his early Berlin years. He was born in Neu-Strelitz, Mecklenburg and studied in Berlin and Halle. Reinhardt had an early exposure to microscopy and was interested in studying the development of pus. In 1847, Reinhardt was an assistant to the liberal and progressive minded gynecologist Carl Mayer. Virchow’s relationship with Reinhardt and Mayer had much more to it than a mere professional aspect. From a letter to his father of 30 November 1849, we learn that Virchow spent much time with Mayer and was exposed to many liberal ideas of the time through the extended Mayer family of liberal bureaucrats. Virchow eventually married Carl Mayer’s daughter Rose. In 1852, Reinhardt died from tuberculosis which he showed signs of as early as 1846. Back

Biographisches Lexikon der hervorragenden Ärzte aller Zeiten und Völker, vierter Band, s.v. "Reinhardt, Benno."; Rudolph Virchow, Briefe an seine Eltern, 1839 bis 1864, ed. M. Rabl (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907).

9. This reference allows us to further isolate when Virchow might have penned this outline. During the year of 1859 two volumes of the Archiv were published, namely the sixteenth and the seventeenth. The sixteenth volume was finished in June. The seventeenth volume was finished in September. This means that Virchow most likely wrote this outline sometime during the summer of 1859 between June and September. Back

10. Cultusminister could be roughly translated to the Minister of Culture. In Posner’s biography of Virchow, he more specifically outlines the title as the Minister in charge of religion, schooling, and medical affairs. From his account we also learn that his name was Eichhorn. On recounting the call later in his life, Virchow himself referred to the office as the "preussischen Medicinalministers" or the Prussian Minister of Medicine. It appears that Virchow was quite eager to travel to Upper Silesia and study the epidemic. Through a letter to his father dated February 20, 1848, we learn that the minister felt that he personally wouldn’t have time to study the disease, and subsequently charged Virchow with the task of studying its nature and origin. Virchow also states that he had previously spoken in person with the minister only the day before the letter arrived giving him permission to take on the project. Back

Rudolph Virchow, Briefe an seine Eltern, 1839 bis 1864, ed. M. Rabl (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907); Virchow’s Archiv 167 (1902): 3; Carl Posner, Rudolph Virchow, (Wien: Rikola, 1921).

11.  Upper (southeastern) Silesia (Gorny Slask) and Lower (northwestern) Silesia lie mostly in what is now Poland. Altogether the region was known as Silesia and was originally settled in the Middle Ages by Slavs. In the 11th century, Silesia became part of Poland. Through a repartitioning of Polish crown territories in the 1100’s and under the influence of Germany, two princes formally divided the region into Lower and Upper Silesia. The new rulers promoted the immigration of German colonists who eventually completely populated and controlled the area. The region was devastated by the Hussite and Thirty Year Wars. Prussia formally took over Silesia in the 1740’s, and retained control of the region up through Virchow’s lifetime. Virchow mentions to his father in the letter dated February 20, 1848 of taking the evening train to Breslau (Wroclaw) on the very day he received permission to carry out his study. Back

Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., s.v. "Silesia.";  Rudolph Virchow, Briefe an seine Eltern, 1839 bis 1864, ed. M. Rabl (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907)

12. Mittheilungen über die in Oberschlesien herrschende Typhus-Epidemie. The report was printed in the 2nd volume of Virchow’s Archiv 2 (1849): 143-322 and again in Gesammelte Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiete der öffentlichen Medicin und Seuchenlehre 1: 214-334.

The bulk of the report contains an analysis of the epidemic from several angles. He outlines the land geographically and socially and describes the overall living conditions and medical practices of the people. Virchow includes a clinical history of the disease and gives several case histories and autopsy reports. He also reports on the forms of treatment employed. It is largely due to the final section of recommendations on how to avoid such an epidemic in the future, that Virchow has gained much notoriety. Some of his statements and recommendations that were considered radically liberal at the time included the ideas of self-government, free and unlimited democracy, tax reform, abolition of feudal duties and privileges, and a constitution of the people. Virchow himself emphasized the importance of this experience in the formation and evolution of his ideas and future life’s work. It is perhaps serendipitous that more was not known concerning the microbial causative factors of the disease, otherwise Virchow might not have been so dramatically motivated in a social and political sense by his experience. After his return to Berlin, Virchow’s bold assertions and participation in liberal politics of the time heightened through the revolution of 1848 and his publishing of Die medicinische Reform and finally reached a crescendo with his suspension by the government in the spring of 1849. Back

Virchow’s Archiv 167 (1902): 3.

13. Die medicinische Reform. Virchow and his colleague Rudolph Leubescher were the editors of the forty-eight issues that began on July 10, 1848. This was a very stormy and busy time for Virchow. Only ten days earlier, he writes to his father of his involvement in starting a medical weekly that would address needed reforms of the medical system. Die medicinische Reform was created during the height of Virchow’s vocal radical years in Berlin and in the shadow of his experience in Upper Silesia. In the first issue, he sets forth the aims of the journal in a tone very similar to that of his typhus report. It characterizes the medical system of the time and the physician’s plight on the same grounds as the common citizen in relation to the state. He emphasizes the need and right for free men to be in charge of their own affairs and the need for unity among physicians to promote change. He explains that reforms in the medical field should be done more for the benefit of the patient rather than the physician. There is a vivid echo of his Upper Silesian experience when he explains the need for progress in social medicine and the famous statement that "physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor". With this introduction and through the remaining issues, Die medicinische Reform took upon itself the task of reforming the German medical system. Back

Rudolph Virchow, Briefe an seine Eltern, 1839 bis 1864, ed. M. Rabl (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907); Rudolph Virchow, Gesammelte Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiete der öffentlichen Medicin und Seuchenlehre (Berlin: August Hirschwald Verlag, 1879).

14. Virchow was suspended by the government as prosector because they felt that he used his official position inappropriately by disseminating provocative pamphlets in support of the liberal movement. He calmly describes the situation to his father in a letter on March 8, 1849, only three weeks prior to his suspension on March 31, 1849. Because of support from faculty and students, the full suspension only last two weeks and was eventually changed to a form of probation with loss of room and board at the Charité. In the same letter, we read for the first time about Virchow’s negotiations with the University of Würzburg and the Bavarian government on the possibility of him assuming a position in pathological anatomy in Würzburg. Back

Rudolph Virchow, Briefe an seine Eltern, 1839 bis 1864, ed. M. Rabl (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907).

15. It is fortunate that the number of Virchow’s letters we have during this period of time are by far the greatest in comparison to any other time in his life.The subject of Virchow’s possible call to Würzburg was first initiated by the Würzburg faculty in January of 1849. Judging by the letters to his father, the circumstances surrounding his suspension and eventual move to Würzburg were of concern to him, but by no means overly distressing.It appears that Virchow had his eye toward Würzburg where Kiwisch and his friend Koelliker had recently gained employment in 1845 and 1847 respectively. In writing to his father on March 8, 1849, he writes of the favorable circumstances in Würzburg and his desire to go there if he is not able to continue at the Charité. According to Posner, Kiwisch and Koelliker along with Rinecker used the developments in Berlin concerning Virchow’s job to lure him to the University of Würzburg. However, the conservative Bavarian government was apprehensive about hiring the liberal Virchow and only after much effort on the part of Kiwisch, Rinecker and Koelliker was the offer officially made. It is interesting to observe the relative political silence that Virchow exhibited during his years in Würzburg knowing the efforts his friends made to help secure the post. From letters to his father concerning the negotiations of his new position, we also learn that Virchow himself agreed to tone down his political activity in order to ease the concerns of the Bavarian government. The other big transition in Virchow’s life at this time was his engagement to Rose Mayer before he left Berlin for Würzburg.An interesting account of his interactions with the Mayer family and Rose can be found in a letter to his father on November 30, 1849. Back

Rudolph Virchow, Briefe an seine Eltern, 1839 bis 1864, ed. M. Rabl (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907); Carl Posner, Rudolph Virchow, (Wien: Rikola, 1921).

16. Die Einheitsbestrebungen in der wissentschaflichen Medicin. Back

17. The heading for "Easter 1849" is of a curious nature. Winter??? Virchow was known to have written his many papers in one sitting and did not edit them afterwards. This fact is supported by the finding that the manuscripts of articles published by Virchow found in the Jager collection at the Clendening History of Medicine Library in Kansas City contain few corrections. Back

Erwin H. Ackerknecht, Rudolph Virchow: Doctor, Statesman, Anthropologist (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1953).

18. The proceedings of the meetings for the Physical-medical Society were published in the Verhandlungen der Physikalisch-Medicinischen Gesellschaft in Würzburg beginning in 1850 and continued up until 1859. Koelliker, Scherer and Virchow are listed in the first volume as the editors. The first page explains that on December 2, 1849 the society was started with a meeting of twenty-four faculty members (all listed). The stated purpose was to advance medicine, natural science and research through meetings to be held every fourteen days where current research topics and methods would be discussed or demonstrated. Back

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