Popular Science Monthly/Volume 61/October 1902/The Progress of Science

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The world has lost one of its great men in the death of Professor Rudolf Virchow. Born on October 13, 1821, the son of a small shopkeeper and farmer in an obscure village of Pomerania, he died on September 5, known everywhere as one of the greatest if not the greatest of contemporary scientific men, having at the same time performed in his long life public services such as do not ordinarily fall to the lot of the man of science. It is not possible to recount in this place the numerous events of Virchow's career nor to describe his great contributions to science. His 'Cellular Pathology' was published in 1858; his theories and experiments having been in part printed in earlier volumes of the Archives für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie, established by him and Reinhart in 1848. Virchow's main thesis was that the cells of the animal body propagate themselves, and that outside forces acting on the cells produce in them mechanical or chemical changes which are disease. The facts of bacteriology since discovered harmonize with this theory and do not conflict with it as has sometimes been assumed. Virchow more than any other one man established the science of pathology and made it possible for medicine to become an applied science. Only second in importance to his contributions to pathology was his work in anthropology which covered all branches of the science—physical measurements, racial differences, ethnology and even archeology. He did not oppose evolution, having indeed advocated the transmutation of species before Darwin, but he was critical in his attitude toward natural selection.

Virchow's scientific work was singularly complete. He made numerous and exact observations and experiments; he deduced from them wide-reaching theories; he conducted an important journal for more than fifty years; he wrote text-books, summaries of scientific advance and books popularizing science; he established a school to which students came from all parts of the world, while at the same time taking part in the education of the people; he founded a great museum and took a leading part in scientific societies; he applied science directly to human welfare.

It is almost incredible that among these multifarious scientific activities Virchow should have been one of the leading statesmen of his country. Here too his work was wide and long continued. He was a member of the municipal council of Berlin for more than forty years, and through him the hygienic conditions of the capital were revolutionized. He had been a member of the Prussian chamber since 1862 and was for twenty-five years chairman of the committee on finance. He was leader of the radical party in the Reichstag. In his public career he opposed centralization, autocracy and war, and advocated all measures for the welfare of the people. He was at one time compelled to leave the University of Berlin owing to his political activity, but his personality and eminence were such that he was recalled to a professorship in 1856, and he was thereafter the preeminent representative of academic freedom.

In this number of the Monthly will be found the Huxley lecture on 'Recent Advances in Science and their Bearing on Medicine and Surgery,' given three years ago by Virchow in London. The issues for July and August of last year contain a paper by him on the 'Peopling of the Philippines,' translated from the Proceedings of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. A recent portrait of Virchow is given above as a frontispiece. An earlier portrait and an account of his life will be found in the number of The Popular Science Monthly for October, 1882.


The death of Virchow, following the deaths of Pasteur, Helmholtz and Darwin, seems to leave the world without men of science as great as those it has lost. Great Britain, in the establishment of its new order of merit, has selected Lord Kelvin, Lord Lister, Lord Rayleigh and Sir William Huggins as the four students of science to be honored. In addition to Mr. Herbert Spencer, whose claims for recognition are somewhat different, Sir Joseph Hooker and Sir William Stokes may be placed in this group. When, on the occasion of Virchow's eightieth birthday last year, Lord Lister brought greetings from Great Britain, he was the only man whose work could be placed beside Virchow's; but while his method of antiseptic treatment in surgery has been one of the greatest advances in medicine, it is in some respects an isolated discovery, and can scarcely claim equality with the immense work accomplished by Virchow and Pasteur. Lord Kelvin is the only living physicist who might be ranked with Helmholtz. Darwin has no peer.

Although Germany has a larger number of scientific workers than Great Britain, it is not certain that it now has more men of exceptional eminence. Professor Haeckel has a worldwide reputation, but would perhaps be ranked less highly by the expert than by the general public. Professor Röntgen's name is known everywhere for one striking discovery, as are also Professor Weismann's for a theory around which much discussion has collected, and Dr. Koch's, less for his real work than for sensational expectations. But it may be doubted whether the leading German men of science are known to the general public or even to those in other departments of science. They would include Klein in mathematics, Struve in astronomy, Boltzmann in physics, Ostwald in chemistry, Suess in geology, Koelliker and Gegenbaur in anatomy, Pflüger in physiology, Strasburger in botany and Wundt in psychology. These, and others who might be named with equal justice, form an important group, and several of them are still in the prime of ljfe. It is doubtful, however, whether any of them will attain the eminence of Helmholtz and Virchow.

A similar list for France would include the names of Hermite and Poincare in mathematics, Loewy in astronomy, Cornu in physics, Berthelot and Moissan in chemistry, Gaudry in geology and van Tieghem in botany. No other European nation ranks with Great Britain, Germany and France. Russia has Mendeléef in chemistry, Kovalevskij in zoology and Karpinskij in geology; Italy has Cremona in mathematics, Righi in physics and Mosso in physiology; and there are of course many other notable men in these and in other countries.

It is obviously difficult to compare our own eminent men with those of other nations. Among those who have an international reputation are Newcomb, Hall and Hill in astronomy, Willard Gibbs in theoretical physics, Michelson in experimental physics, Wolcott Gibbs in chemistry, Gilbert in geology, Agassiz in zoology, Farlow in botany, Welch in pathology and James in psychology.

Eminence is relative, and as scientific work becomes more widespread and special it may be that men of equal ability will no longer become as eminent as might have been the case had they lived earlier. The complexity of knowledge and of civilization has increased more rapidly within the past four hundred years than the capacity of the mind. A century ago it might have been almost possible to be personally acquainted with the men of the world who were doing work of importance; now it is not possible to remember their names.


In connection with the order of merit established by King Edward on the occasion of his coronation it is of some interest to note that four men of science—whose names are given above—have been placed among the twelve original members. There are in addition three generals, two admirals, two men of letters and one artist. It would thus appear that one third of the recognition for services rendered to the nation fall to science, twice as much as to letters and humanities and four times as much as to art. The creation of the British order of merit and the selection of its recipients have apparently met with general approval, but its usefulness is not quite obvious. The Prussian order 'Pour le Mérite,' established by Frederick the Great in 1740, was fitted to its age and environment, but it seems somewhat late to found an English imitation. An eminent German resident in America has recently maintained that productive scholarship here suffers because we have no honorary recognitions such as flourish in Germany. It must be admitted that men of science like such honors. Even a man as great as Huxley was obviously pleased at being made a privy councilor and being granted an audience with the Queen. Sir William Thomson was willing to give up the name of his father, himself a professor of mathematics, to become Lord Kelvin, even though he has no heir. It is said that he and Professor Lister were made first baronets and then barons because they have no heirs, a certain amount of property, more likely to be possessed by brewers than by scientific men, being required before a hereditary title is granted. But while men of science may like to be Hofrats, Geheimrats, vons, sirs, lords and LL.D.'s, it is not certain that their work is thereby improved or that these honorary distinctions will survive the twentieth century.

Much the same may be said in regard to the British Academy for the promotion of historical, philosophical and philological studies to which a charter has just been granted by King Edward. In so far as this academy is intended to designate forty-nine 'immortals' in certain departments, permitting them to attach several letters to their names and letting their chief corporate duty be the election of their successors, membership is a kind of order or title which belongs to an aristocratic rather than to a democratic age and people. When academies were established, chiefly in the seventeenth and the first part of the eighteenth centuries, it was possible and desirable for all the scientific men of the nation to meet together for experiment and discussion, and membership in the academy usually carried with it a pension or other tangible advantage. Whether membership in an academy simply as an honorary distinction stimulates scientific work in those who are called and in those who would like to be called is perhaps somewhat analogous to the question as to whether good works are encouraged by the rewards and punishments formerly prominent in theological systems. There is partial truth in Tennyson's verses:

The man of science himself is fonder of glory, and vain;
An eye well-practiced in nature, a spirit bounded and poor.

The desire for fame has doubtless been useful in the course of social evolution, but the time may come when its survival will be a nuisance.

An academy may of course perform valuable services as a center of organization. This is the case with the Royal Society, which to a certain extent corresponds to the continental academies, but with three or four hundred members it is reasonably democratic. As the eighteenth century was the era of academies, the nineteenth was the era of special societies for the separate sciences and of democratic associations for the advancement of science. In the present century specialization will increase still further and men of science will become still more numerous; it will be necessary to replace an aristocracy and a plebescite with a representative form of government.


The French Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting in August, and the corresponding German and British associations held their meetings in September. Reports of these meetings have not as yet come to hand, except that an abstract of Professor James Dewar's presidential address before the Belfast meeting of the British Association has been cabled to the daily papers. It appears from this report that the address was largely devoted to a review of the progress of physical chemistry, but reference was made to recent munificent benefactions to science and education, especially the gifts of Mr. Carnegie and the late Cecil Rhodes. Professor Dewar said he thought that the means chosen by Mr. Rhodes were not the most effective which could have been selected, but that it must be remembered that Mr. Rhodes's aims were political as much as educational. "He had a noble and worthy ambition to promote the enduring friendship of the great English-speaking communities of the world, and he was probably also influenced by the hope that a large influx of strangers would broaden Oxford's notions."

Referring to Mr. Carnegie's endowment of Scottish universities and the foundation of an institution at Washington as of more direct benefit to higher education than the bequest of Mr. Rhodes, Professor Dewar is reported to have remarked that the establishment of the institution at Washington meant a scouring of the Old World as well as the New for the best men in every department. In fact, he said, the assiduous collecting of brains for the benefit of America was similar to the collecting of rare books and works of art which Americans were now carrying on so lavishly.

Reviewing the meager gifts to the Royal Institution of Great Britain during the past century, he said that, without such endowments as Mr. Carnegie's, the outlook for disinterested research was rather dark. The Carnegie Institution could dispose in one year of as much money as the Royal Institution had expended in a century on its purely scientific work, and it would be interesting to note how far the output of scientific work corresponded to the hundredfold application of money to its production.

Speaking on the subject of applied chemistry, Professor Dewar criticized the 'deplorable backwardness' of Great Britain, as compared with foreign countries. Taking Germany as an example, he declared that, notwithstanding the immense range of chemical industries in which the United Kingdom had once been prominent, Germany today employed a professional staff three times as great as the United Kingdom, and as superior in technical training and acquirements as it was numerically. German chemical manufacturers enjoyed a practical monopoly, which enabled them to exact huge profits from the rest of the world and to establish in an almost unassailable position industries which were largely founded on basic discoveries made by English chemists, but which had never been properly developed in the land of their birth.

The explanation of this 'disastrous phenomenon' Professor Dewar gave in three words: 'Want of education.' He said it was the failure of schools to turn out, and of manufacturers to demand, properly trained men which explained Great Britain's loss of valuable industries and the country's precarious hold upon others. 'To my mind,' said he, 'the really appalling thing is not that the Germans have seized upon this or the other industry, but that the German population has reached a point of general training and specialized equipment which it will take us two generations of hard and intelligently directed educational work to attain.'


This Council was constituted at Copenhagen on July 22 by delegates from Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland. According to the report in the September number of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, the principle of simultaneous observations four times a year as the basis of a system of regular observations of temperature, density and plankton was adopted, and the share to be taken in the work by each of the participating nations was practically settled. The two ships which the British Government has voted for the work will undertake periodical trips in the Færoe-Shetland channel and across the northern end of the North Sea, working from a central harbor in Shetland, and also simultaneous trips in the western part of the English channel. The southern half of the North Sea will be investigated by the Dutch, the northern half by the German ships. Denmark undertakes the sea between Færoe and Iceland, while Norway has the heavy task of making observations in the North Atlantic off the extensive western sea-board of Scandinavia. Russia has undertaken similar work along the Murman coast and across Barents Sea to Novaya Zemlya, while the Baltic will be studied in detail by Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Russian and German ships. While the periodical oceanographical trips are the framework of the whole system of observations, they are intended to be connected and completed by observations at fixed stations, such as light-ships and by the cooperation, as far as surface observations are concerned, of regular lines of steamers crossing the North Sea and the Atlantic.

The biological work of the council has been limited, by the conditions which most of the governments concerned have attached to their grants, to the investigation of special problems of urgent practical importance to fisheries. Two such problems were selected. A committee has been charged with the duty of investigating the migrations of such fish as the cod and herring, and another with the investigation of the whole question of over-fishing in the parts of the North Sea most frequented by trawlers.

The organization of the central bureau of the Council was also determined, Dr. Herwig being appointed as president. The seat of the bureau is in Copenhagen, and the chief assistant will be Dr. Knudsen, lecturer on physics in the Polytechnic school there. All the publications of the council will be issued by the bureau, which will also form the medium of communication between the various national organizations, the special committees and others.

The international laboratory has been established in Christiania, with Dr. Nansen as honorary director and Dr. Walfrid Ekman as assistant for physical work; an assistant for chemical work is also about to be appointed. The laboratory will undertake the training of observers for the various national organizations, the testing of instruments, the supply of standard sea-water for controlling salinity determinations, and also gas-analysis. It will also carry out experiments with improved apparatus and methods in order to ensure a degree of accuracy never before aimed at in work at sea. It was recommended that the laboratory should, if possible, be opened in October, and that the periodical cruises be commenced as soon as possible, but at the latest by the spring of 1903.


Dr. Alexander Agassiz and Lord Avebury have been appointed members of the Prussian order, 'pour le mérite.' We understand that Dr. Agassiz is the only American on whom this honor has been conferred except the historian Bancroft.—Dr. Wilhelm Wundt, the eminent psychologist and philosopher, celebrated his seventieth birthday on August 16. A volume of researches carried out by his former students was presented to him on the occasion.—M. Levasseur, professor of agriculture at the Collège de France, has been elected president of the French Association for the Advancement of Science. The Association will hold its meeting in 1903 at Angiers.—The Iron and Steel Institute of Great Britain held its meeting at Düsseldorf last month. Among those who made addresses at the opening meeting was Professor Henry M. Howe, of Columbia University. Mr. Andrew Carnegie has been elected president of the Institute.—The centenary of the birth of Hugh Miller was celebrated at Cromarty on August 22. The principal address was made by Sir Archibald Geikie. An address was also made by Dr. John M. Clarke, of Albany.—The centenary of the birth of the eminent mathematician, Abel, was celebrated at Christiania last month. On this occasion honorary degrees were given to a number of mathematicians, including Professors Simon Newcomb and J. Willard Gibbs.—The committee of the fund raised to commemorate the eightieth birthday of Professor Virchow announces that it has handed over a sum of over $12,000 to the Rudolf Virchow Foundation.—Gilbert White's house at Selbourne is for sale, and the suggestion is made by Mr. E. A. Martin, member of the council of the Selbourne Society, that it should be purchased as a permanent memorial of the father of British naturalists.