1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Virchow, Rudolf

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VIRCHOW, RUDOLF (1821-1902), German pathologist and politician, was born on the 13th of October 1821 at Schivelbein, in Pomerania, where his father was a small farmer and shopkeeper. As a boy he attended the Volksschule of his native village, and at the age of seventeen, having passed through the gymnasium of Köslin, went to Berlin to study medicine. He took his doctor's degree in 1843, and almost immediately received an appointment as assistant-surgeon at the Charité Hospital, becoming pro-rector three years later. In 1847 he began to act as Privatdozent in the university, and founded with Reinhardt the Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie, which, after his collaborator's death in 1852, he carried on alone, and in 1848 he went as a member of a government commission to investigate an outbreak of typhus in upper Silesia. About the same time, having shown too open sympathy with the revolutionary or reforming tendencies of 1848, he was for political reasons obliged to leave Berlin and retire to the seclusion of Würzburg, the medical school of which profited enormously by his labours as professor of pathological anatomy, and secured a wide extension of its reputation. In 1856 he was recalled to Berlin as ordinary professor of pathological anatomy in the university, and as director of the Pathological Institute formed a centre for research whence has flowed a constant stream of original work on the nature and processes of disease. On the 14th of October 1901 his eightieth birthday was celebrated in Berlin amid a brilliant gathering of men of science, part of the ceremonies taking place in the new Pathological Museum, near the Charité, which owes its existence mainly to his energy and powers of organization. On that occasion all Europe united to do him honour, many learned societies sent delegates to express their congratulations, the king of Italy gave him his own portrait on a gold medallion, and among the numerous addresses he received was one from Kaiser Wilhelm II., who took the opportunity of presenting him with the Grand Gold Medal for Science. In the early part of 1902 he slipped from a tramcar in Berlin and fractured his thigh; from this injury he never really recovered, and his death occurred in Berlin on the 5th of September 1902.

Wide as were Virchow's studies, and successful as he was in all, yet the foremost place must be given to his achievements in pathological investigation. He may, in fact, be called the father of modern pathology, for his view, that every animal is constituted by a sum of vital units, each of which manifests the characteristics of life, has almost uniformly dominated the theory of disease since the middle of the 19th century, when it was enunciated. The beginnings of his doctrine of cellular pathology date from the earliest period in his career. When, towards the end of his student-days in Berlin, he was acting as clinical assistant in the eye department of the Berlin Hospital, he noticed that in keratitis and corneal wounds healing took place without the appearance of plastic exudation. This observation led him to further work, and he succeeded in showing that in vascular organs the presence of cells in inflammatory exudates is not the result of exudation but of multiplication of pre-existing cells. Eventually he was able to prove that the biological doctrine of omnis cellula e cellula applies to pathological processes as well as to those of normal growth, and in his famous book on Cellular-pathologie, published at Berlin in 1858, he established what Lord Lister described as the “true and fertile doctrine that every morbid structure consists of cells which have been derived from pre-existing cells as a progeny.” But in addition to bringing forward a fundamental and philosophical view of morbid processes, which probably contributed more than any other single cause to vindicate for pathology the place which he claimed for it among the biological sciences, Virchow made many important contributions to histology and morbid anatomy and to the study of particular diseases. The classification into epithelial organs, connective tissues, and the more specialized muscle and nerve, was largely due to him; and he proved the presence of neuroglia in the brain and spinal cord, discovered crystalline haematoidine, and made out the structure of the umbilical cord. Medical science further owes to him the classification of new growths on a natural histological basis, the elucidation of leucaemia, glioma and lardaceous tumours, and detailed investigations into many diseases — tuberculosis, pyaemia, diphtheria, leprosy, typhus, &c. Among the books he published on pathological and medical subjects may be mentioned Vorlesungen über Pathologie, the first volume of which was the Cellular-pathologie (1858), and the remaining three Die Krankhaften Geschwülste (1863-67); Handbuch der speziellen Pathologie und Therapie (3 vols., 1854-62), in collaboration with other German surgeons; Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur wissenschaftlichen Medizin (1856); Vier Reden über Leben und Kranksein (1862); Untersuchungen über die Entwicklung des Schädelgrundes (1857); Lehre von den Trichinen (1865); Ueber den Hunger-typhus (1868); and Gesammelte Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiete der öffentlichen Medizin und der Seuchenlehre (1879). In England his pathological work won general recognition. The Royal Society awarded him the Copley medal in 1892, and selected him as Croonian lecturer in the following year, his subject being the position of pathology among the biological sciences; and in 1898 he delivered the second Huxley memorial lecture at Charing Cross Hospital.

Another science which Virchow cultivated with conspicuous success was anthropology, which he did much to put on a sound critical basis. At the meeting of the Naturforscherversammlung at Innsbruck in 1869, he was one of the founders of the German Anthropological Society, of which he became president in the following year; and from 1869 onwards he presided over the Berlin Anthropological Society, also acting as editor of its proceedings in the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie. In ethnology he published a volume of essays on the physical anthropology of the Germans, with special reference to the Frisians; and at his instance a census, which yielded remarkable results, was carried out among school children throughout Germany, to determine the relative distribution of blondes and brunettes. His archaeological work included the investigation of lake dwellings and other prehistoric structures; he went with Schliemann to Troy in 1879, fruits of the expedition being two books, Zur Landeskunde der Troas (1880) and Alt-trojanische Gräber und Schädel (1882); in 1881 he visited the Caucasus, and on his return published Das Gräberfeld von Koban im Lande der Osseten; and in 1888 he accompanied Schliemann to Egypt, Nubia and the Peloponnese.

As a politician Virchow had an active career. In 1862 he was elected a member of the Prussian Lower House. Professing advanced Liberal and democratic views, he was a founder and leader of the Fortschrittspartei, and the expression Kulturkampf had, it is believed, its origin in one of his electoral manifestoes. For many years he was chairman of the finance committee, and in that capacity may be looked upon as a chief founder of the constitutional Prussian Budget system. In 1880 he entered the Reichstag as representative of a Berlin constituency, but was ousted in 1893 by a Social Democrat. In the Reichstag he became the leader of the Opposition, and a vigorous antagonist to Bismarck. In the local and municipal politics of Berlin again he took a leading part, and as a member of the municipal council was largely responsible for the transformation which came over the city in the last thirty years of the 19th century. That it has become one of the healthiest cities in the world from being one of the unhealthiest is attributable in great measure to his insistence on the necessity of sanitary reform, and it was his unceasing efforts that secured for its inhabitants the drainage system, the sewage farms and the good water-supply, the benefits of which are reflected in the decreased death-rate they now enjoy. In respect of hospitals and the treatment of the sick his energy and knowledge were of enormous advantage to his country, both in times of peace and of war, and the unrivalled accommodation for medical treatment possessed by Berlin is a standing tribute to his name, which will be perpetuated in one of the largest hospitals of the city.

Of his writings on social and political questions may be mentioned Die Erziehung des Weibes (1865); Ueber die nationale Entwicklung und Bedeutung der Naturwissenschaften (1865); Die Aufgaben der Naturwissenschaften in dem neuen nationalen Leben Deutschlands (1871); Die Freiheit der Wissenschaft im modernen Staat (1877), in which he opposed the idea of Haeckel — that the principles of evolution should be taught in elementary schools — on the ground that they were not as yet proved, and that it was mischievous to teach a hypothesis which still remained in the speculative stage.

See Lives by Becher (Berlin, 1894) and Pagel (Leipzig, 1906); Rudolf Virchow als Patholog by Marchand (Munich, 1902); Rudolf Virchow als Arzt by Ebstein (Stuttgart, 1903); Gedächtnisrede auf R. Virchow (Berlin, 1903); and Briefe Virchows an seine Eltern 1830-1864, by Marie Rabl (Leipzig, 1907). A bibliography of his works was published at Berlin in 1901.