Rudolf Virchow bigraphy, stories - German doctor, anthropologist, public health activist, pathologist, prehistorian, biologist and politician

Rudolf Virchow : biography

13 October 1821 - 5 September 1902

Rudolph Carl Virchow (13 October 1821 – 5 September 1902) was a German doctor, anthropologist, pathologist, prehistorian, biologist and politician, known for his advancement of public health. Referred to as "the father of modern pathology", he is considered one of the founders of social medicine.

In 1861, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1892, he was awarded the Copley Medal. Among his most famous students was anthropologist Franz Boas, who became a professor at Columbia University.

The Society for Medical Anthropology gives an annual award in Virchow's name, the Rudolf Virchow Award.

Life and scientific career

From a farming family, he studied medicine and chemistry in Berlin at the Prussian Military Academy from 1839 to 1843 on a scholarship. When he graduated in 1843, he went to serve as Johannes Peter Mueller's assistant at the Charité Hospital. At this time, the German medical tradition was inclined more towards ‘romantic speculation’ and ‘naked empiricism’, in contrast with the more scientific approach found in England and France.

At Charité, he learned microscopy alongside with Robert Froriep. Froriep was the editor of an abstract journal that specialised in foreign work, allowing Virchow to be exposed to the more forward-looking scientific ideas of France and England. In 1848, he qualified as a lecturer at the University of Berlin, and became Froriep's successor. Unlike his German peers, Virchow used to have great faith that clinical observation, animal experimentation (to determine causes of diseases and the effects of drugs) and pathological anatomy, particularly at the microscopic level, were the basic principles of investigation in medical sciences. He went further and stated the cell was the basic unit of the body that had to be studied to understand disease. Although the term ‘cell’ had been coined in the 1600s, the building blocks of life were still considered to be the 21 tissues of Bichat, a concept described by the French physician Marie Bichat. Because his writings were not receiving favourable attention by German editors, he associated with Benno Reinhardt in founding the Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie und für klinische Medizin, world-famous as “Virchow's Archives”, which he edited alone from Reinhardt's death in 1852 until his own. This journal began publishing high-level contributions based on the criterion that no papers would be published which contained outdated, untested, dogmatic or speculative ideas.

In 1849, he was employed as chair of pathological anatomy at the University of Würzburg, leaving his post at Carité, where he was experiencing political persecution. During his six-year period there, he concentrated on his scientific work, including detailed studies on venous thrombosis and cellular theory. By 1856, Virchow was asked to return from Würzburg to the Charité Hospital in Berlin. Such a reinstatement was evidence of the name he was achieving for himself in scientific and medical circles. He became Director of the Pathological Institute and remained in charge of the clinical section of the hospital for the next 20 years.

Medical terms named after Virchow

  • Virchow's angle, the angle between the nasobasilar line and the nasosubnasal line
  • Virchow's 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 concept of pathology, comparison of diseases common to humans and animals
  • Virchow's disease, leontiasis ossea, now recognized as a symptom rather than a disease
  • Virchow's gland, Virchow's node
  • Virchow's Law, during craniosynostosis, skull growth is restricted to a plane perpendicular to the affected, prematurely fused suture and is enhanced in a plane parallel to it.
  • Virchow's line, a line from the root of the nose to the lambda
  • Virchow's metamorphosis, lipomatosis in the heart and salivary glands
  • Virchow's method of autopsy, a method of autopsy where each organ is taken out one by one
  • Virchow's node, the presence of metastatic cancer in a lymph node in the supraclavicular fossa (root of the neck left of the midline), also known as Troisier's sign
  • Virchow's psammoma, psammoma bodies in meningiomas
  • Virchow-Robin spaces, enlarged perivascular spaces (EPVS) (often only potential) that surround blood vessels for a short distance as they enter the brain
  • Virchow-Seckel syndrome, a very rare disease also known as "bird-headed dwarfism"
  • Virchow's triad, the classic factors which precipitate venous thrombus formation: endothelial dysfunction or injury, hemodynamic changes and hypercoaguability
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