Rudolph Virchow

Born in 1821 in Schivelbein, Pomerania, then part of Prussia and now called Świdwin in North Western Poland. Died in Berlin in 1902.

‘Politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale’

Known as the Father of Modern Pathology

Here are just a few things he did in this field:

He developed cell theory.

He first used the term leukaemia and developed the theory of the origins of cancer.

He coined the words embolism, thrombosis and spina bifida.

Virchow’s triad; increased blood clotting, increased blood flow and blood vessel damage are the factors that precipitate venous thrombosis.

Virchow’s node; the lymph node in the left supra-clavicular fossa is a sign of metastatic cancer particularly of the gastrointestinal tract.

He developed modern techniques of autopsy.

Known as the Founder of Social Medicine

Among other things he discovered that human roundworm is spread via contaminated pork and this led to the practice of meat inspection.

He first coined the term zoonoses to describe infections that could be transmitted between animals and humans. (relevant to our present Coronavirus pandemic)

He was the first to analyse hair in criminal investigations.

He did not believe in Darwin’s theories of evolution particularly Social Darwinism. He rejected Race Science Theories.

He did not believe in the Germ Theory of Disease and thought epidemics were social in origin and should be dealt with politically.


He was an anthropologist and civic reformer improving public health particularly water and sewage.

He became leader of the Radical or Progressive Party and was elected as a politician, serving in the Reichstag for 13 years.

He opposed Bismarck’s militarism.

He opposed the power of the Catholic Church.

He was an anti-racist.

One of his students taught Salvador Allende at the University of Chile.

Virchow made himself known as a pronounced pro-democracy progressive in the year of revolutions in Europe (1848). His political views are evident in his Report on the Typhus Outbreak of Upper Silesia, where he states that the outbreak could not be solved by treating individual patients with drugs or with minor changes in food, housing, or clothing laws, but only through radical action to promote the advancement of an entire population, which could only be achieved by “full and unlimited democracy” and “education, freedom and prosperity”.

The following statement is one of Virchow’s most famous and sums up his thinking about medicine and politics. It could not be more pertinent to the situation we face in the 21st century in regard to pandemics and the impending species and climate catastrophe.

‘Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale. Medicine, as a social science, as the science of human beings, has the obligation to point out problems and to attempt their theoretical solution: the politician, the practical anthropologist, must find the means for their actual solution… Science for its own sake usually means nothing more than science for the sake of the people who happen to be pursuing it. Knowledge which is unable to support action is not genuine – and how unsure is activity without understanding… If medicine is to fulfill her great task, then she must enter the political and social life… The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.’

Jack Czauderna

February 2021