Rudolf Carl Virchow Biography (1821-1902)

physician, anatomist

Rudolf Virchow, an only child, was born in a small rural town in Germany. Hisearly interest in the natural sciences and broad humanistic training helpedhim get high marks throughout school. In 1839, his outstanding scholarly abilities earned him a military fellowship to study medicine at the Freidrich-Wilhelms Institut in Berlin, Germany. Virchow had the opportunity to study underJohannes Müller, gaining experience in experimental laboratory and diagnostic methods.

In 1843, he received his medical degree from the University of Berlin and went on to become company surgeon at the Charité Hospital in Berlin. In this post, he was one of the first to describe "white blood" (leukemia). As ayoung man, he became a powerful speaker for the new generation of German physicians. He viewed medical progress as coming from three main sources: clinical observations, including examination of the patient; animal experimentationto test methods and drugs; and pathological anatomy, especially at the microscopic level. He also insisted that life was the sum of physical and chemicalactions and essentially the expression of cell activity. Although these viewscaused some older physicians to condemn Virchow, he received his medical license in 1846.

Two years later, Virchow was sent to Prussia to treat victims of a typhus epidemic. Seeing the desperate condition of the Polish minority, he recommendedsweeping educational and economic reform and political freedom. From that point on, he was a firm believer that to do any good for sick people, one must treat the sick society. Acting on his convictions, Virchow fought in the uprisings of 1848 and became a member of the Berlin Democratic Congress. Unfortunately, his strong political and social conscience cost him his university post. Virchow finally left Berlin for the more liberal atmosphere of the University of Wurzburg. There he embarked on his highest level of scientific achievement--his development of cellular pathology.

In 1855, Virchow published his journal article on cellular pathology. "Omnis cellula e cellula," he wrote, meaning all cells arise from cells. Essentially, his article generalized the concept of cell theory and modernized the entire medical field. The cell became the fundamental living unit in both healthy diseased tissue. He used the microscope to bring the study of diseasedown to a more fundamental level; disease occurred because healthy living cells were altered or disturbed. However, he rejected the germ theory developedby Louis Pasteur, arguing instead that diseased tissue resulted from the breakdown of order within cells and not from the invasion of a foreign body. Scientists have since discovered that disease results from both circumstances.

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