Meet Rudolf Virchow, The Victorian "Pope Of Medicine" Who Didn't

Believe In Evolution


By Katie Serena | Checked By Leah Silverman Published May 28, 2019


Rudolf Virchow's work spanned pathology, forensics, and cancer

research. But for all his work, Virchow was also quite ignorant on two

of the biggest medical advancements in modern medicine.


Painting Of Scholar Beside Sketches Of Cells


Rudolf Virchow in 1886 alongside an original illustration of his cell



In the scientific community and particularly in the medical community,

perhaps no man is as hailed as Rudolf Virchow. Often referred to as the

"father of modern pathology" and the "Pope of Medicine," Virchow is

responsible for some of the most important medical discoveries that the

field of disease study has ever seen.


However, in the rest of the scientific community and specifically in

the evolutionary community, perhaps no man is as hated. Despite his

achievements and discoveries, Virchow spent most of his professional

life in a strange dichotomy where he toed the line between scientific

genius and ignorance.


At the same time that he discovered and named blood diseases like

leukemia, he also publicly disparaged Darwin's theory of evolution and

claimed that Neanderthals were simply "disfigured" humans.


Yet, one of the most popular tales of him is not one of discovery or

accomplishment, but of a duel in which he chose to fight with a

diseased sausage instead of a sword.



Such is the strange and singular story of Rudolf Virchow. Rudolf

Virchow's Early Life A Sketch Of A Bespectacled Man


Wikimedia CommonsA younger Rudolf Virchow.


Born in 1821 in the Kingdom of Prussia, now modern-day Germany, to

working-class parents, it was clear from the moment Virchow began his

educational career that he was a brilliant man.


He came in at the top of his classes at every possible opportunity and

became fluent in nine languages before he even graduated from secondary

school. But Virchow had initially hoped to put his talents to use as a

pastor. He felt that a life of hard work, such as he had lived, had

prepared him for benediction.


However, upon completing his thesis aptly titled A Life Full of Work

and Toil is not a Burden but a Benediction, Virchow decided his voice

was not quite strong enough to preach.


Virchow then turned to medicine which is also a field of hard work,

dedication, and endless toil. At 18 years old in 1839, the young

scientist received a fellowship that was granted to children of poor

families in order to become a military surgeon. He thus began studying

medicine ferociously.


Virchow's Contributions To Modern Medicine And Politics


Illustration Of Dividing Cells


Virchow's first publication, from 1845, titled Cellularpathologie.


Over the next several years, Virchow became enmeshed in various causes

in the medical community. He wrote theses on rheumatic diseases and he

rubbed elbows with some of the most advanced medical minds of the time.


In 1844 he became the assistant to pathologist Robert Froreip, who

introduced him to the field of pathology or the study of diseases, as

well as microbiology and microscopy. He encouraged his students later

to "think microscopically," an ethic that would lead Virchow himself to

one of the greatest discoveries in his career and in the pathological

field of the 19th century.


Just a year later, Virchow published his first scientific paper in

which he described the pathology of leukemia for the first time in

medical history. Virchow discovered that white cells, when abnormally

increased, will cause a near-fatal blood disease. He coined this

disease "leukemia" and declared it a type of cancer. From this

observation, he theorized that abnormal cells are the most common cause

of cancer. He then used this research to discover how tumors form and

became the first to describe a "chordoma" or tumor that forms on the

base of the skull.


In his further research of cancer, Virchow and another anatomist

discovered that an enlarged supraclavicular node is the first sign of

stomach or lung cancer. Today, the node is commonly called "Virchow's



The paper allowed him to earn his first medical license. Two years

later, he was enlisted by the Prussian government to study a typhus

outbreak. The paper Virchow wrote from this study became a turning

point in the discussion of public health.


For the first time, Virchow outlined how the study of disease went

beyond an academic curiosity and was more of an agent to the people.

"Medicine is a social science" and "the physician is the natural

attorney of the poor," Virchow asserted. He insisted that epidemics

like typhus could be thwarted only through "education, with its

daughters, liberty, and prosperity." In saying so, Virchow tied his

medical career with a political one which challenged the standing

government in German.


He subsequently played a role in the German revolutions of the 1840s

and '50s. Virchow joined the revolution by founding and printing a

weekly newspaper devoted to educating the public about social medicine.


As a result of his contributions, Rudolf Virchow would spend the next

20 years as the Chair for Pathological Anatomy and Physiology at the

Friedrich-Wilhelms-University as well as Director of the Institute for

Pathology at the Charité Hospital.


Virchow continued to research and write about the human body as a

microcosm for society at large. Perhaps the most well-known

contribution Rudolf Virchow made to the medical field was his research

on cell theory. Virchow asserted that living cells do not spontaneously

occur, but instead come from another living cell by way of cell

division. He referred to the body as a "cell state in which each cell

is a citizen." Diseases, therefore, were just "conflict[s] between the

citizens of the state, caused by outer forces."


Later in life, Virchow was the first to discover that infectious

diseases could be passed between animals and humans.


He was one of the leading physicians who attended to Kaiser Frederick

III, who was gravely ill with an indiscernible disease of the larynx.

When the Kaiser died in 1888, many blamed Virchow for malpractice and

misdiagnosis, but his decisions in regards to the Kaiser were confirmed

to be the right ones long after his death in 1948.


Virchow was also one of the first people to create a systematic way of

performing autopsies, one of which is still used today. He even paved

the way for modern forensics as the first person to analyze a single

hair for a criminal report and reported on how hair had its limitations

as a form of incriminating evidence. A collection of his works were

published in 1858 and are still today regarded as the basis of modern

medical science.


In the midst of his varied career, Virchow did manage to find time to

marry and have three children.


But despite his major accomplishments and discoveries in the medical

field, Rudolf Virchow was shockingly behind the times when it came to

other parts of the scientific community - particularly evolution.


Politics, Sausage Duels, And Anti-Darwinism


Virchow Old


Wikimedia CommonsVirchow at 80 years old in 1901.


When Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1858,

Virchow was already publicly speaking out against the naturalist's

views on evolution.


In 1856 when the first Neanderthal specimen was discovered, Virchow

claimed it was more likely that the specimen was an early human who

suffered from an unknown disease that caused its skull and bones to be

disproportional and disfigured, rather than an early descendant of man

or a newly discovered species.


Even after Darwin published his groundbreaking report, Virchow

continued to speak against him and insisted that evolution was simply a

hypothesis and subject to change. He was so adamant in his decision

that he succeeded in getting natural history removed from school

curriculum in favor of alternate hypotheses. Until he died, he insisted

evolution was merely one of the multiple theories to explain human

existence and required further evidence.


Rudolf Virchow also did not believe that disease came from pathogens

and outside forces, but rather came to fruition like cancer and from

abnormal cells inside the body. He believed that the current state of

society was to blame for the emergence of abnormal cells and disease

and laughed at the notion of handwashing as an antiseptic preventative.


Outside of medicine, the layperson may find the name Rudolf Virchow

familiar for an entirely different, albeit hilarious reason: his

infamous sausage duel.


Though the story is a famous one, there is speculation as to whether or

not it actually happened.


Virchow's anti-Darwinist rants brought him to become involved in

liberal politics by the mid-1860s. He was elected to the Berlin City

Council where he worked to improve the public health. He saw to sewage

disposal, hospital design, meat inspection, and school hygiene. It was

also during this time in politics here that he found an opponent in

Otto von Bismarck, the leader of an opposing party.


In 1865, after Virchow publicly spoke out against Bismarck's high

military budget, Bismarck challenged him to a duel. Some accounts claim

Virchow simply declined, as he didn't believe that dueling was a

civilized way to end an argument. But by other accounts, the duel

panned out differently.


Virchow was allegedly allowed to choose the weapons for the duel

against Bismark. In a tongue-in-cheek move to prove his point that

medicine was more important than war, he offered Bismarck his choice of

weapon; a normal pork sausage or a sausage infected with Trichinella

larvae. Bismarck ultimately determined the duel was too risky, and

Virchow's point was proved when he pulled out of the duel.


Virchow Vanity Fair


Wikimedia CommonsA sketch of Virchow done by SPY magazine for Vanity



Today, despite all of his failures to recognize two giant advancements

in the scientific field, Rudolf Virchow is still one of the most

important figures in medical history. Without him, we wouldn't have a

full understanding of leukemia, how tumors grow, blood clots, or

countless other medical afflictions.


Or, a great story of a duel between two sausages.


Next, check out these surprising Charles Darwin facts. Then, read about

the first lab-created human-animal hybrid.