"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. The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and social problems fall to a large extent within their jurisdiction."

Rudolf Carl Virchow (1821 - 1902) was a physician, anthropologist, and pathologist credited with being one of the founders of 'social medicine'. Social medicine was the practice of applying social sciences to medicine in order to uncover social, economic, and political determinants to disease and illness, as opposed to placing purely biophysical phenomena (such as the then-nascent germ theory as the causes of disease) as primary causes of poor health.

In addition, he actively denounced popular notions of white racial purity and superiority prevalent in Europe and North America as unsupported by craniometric and other evidence, which instead suggested that the so-called 'Aryan' peoples were as much an admixture of various races. Furthermore, he is credited with invigorating archaeology in Germany through both his founding of the Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory in 1869 and his prolific archaeological fieldwork in Central Asia and North Africa.


Research and Work

Virchow began his prolific career as a medical doctor trained by the Prussian Army. In 1848 he was charged by the Prussian government to investigate an outbreak of typhus in Upper Silesia, a study from whose findings Virchow began to form what he would later call 'social medicine'. The cure for the typhus epidemic, he argued, was not most expediently accomplished through relatively minor changes in nutrition, shelter, and clothing, but rather through sweeping socio-economic reforms that constituted no less than a full democratic reform of the state --- a position which made him notorious and unpopular with many figures in the Prussian military state of the latter half of the 19th century.

In 1869 Virchow founded the Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory, considered by many to be the genesis of German anthropology and archaeology. While Virchow may be more widely known for his contributions to anthropology applied to medicine and public health, his contributions to archaeology are no less impressive. Between 1865 and 1870 he was involved in the discovery and excavation of numerous archaeological sites in Germany, and in 1879 he accompanied Heinrich Schliemann to Hissarlik, the site of Schliemann's alleged discovery of the ancient Greek city-state of Troy. For these contributions to archaeology, the annual Rudolf Virchow lecture was instituted in Germany in 1987.

Virchow's contribution to anthropology in other countries is equally extensive. Among his students is counted Franz Boas, widely considered by many to be the founder of American anthropology. Arguably his most notable contribution to anthropology occurred in 1885, when Virchow initiated a study of craniometry which contradicted prevailing notions that not only did non-European races have lesser cranial capacities and therefore were less intelligent, but also that white northern Europeans constituted a 'pure' race of physically and mentally superior beings, a set of notions later termed 'scientific racism'.

But he was not only a formidable scholar and compassionate physician; his political engagement was a driving motivation for much of his research and activism. In 1859 he was elected as a city councilman in Berlin, a position from which he vigorously championed numerous public health and sanitation measures, such as the construction of Berlin's sewer system. In 1862, he was elected to the Reichstag as a founding member of the German Progressive Party, from which he argued for a decrease in military spending and for sweeping reforms of the German health care system. This put him at odds with Chancellor Bismarck, which led to the Chancellor's challenging Virchow to a duel. Virchow accepted on condition that the weapons of choice be pork sausages loaded with Trichinella larvae --- a condition which Bismarck could not accept, deeming it 'too risky', and causing him to call off the duel altogether.

Throughout his career, Virchow was a passionate and tireless proponent of social reform as a means of ensuring the health and well-being of a population, and continues to be a guiding light for many contemporary medical anthropologists, not the least of which are figures such as Paul Farmer.


Born in the Prussian state of Pomerania on October 13, 1821 in Schivelbein (now Świdwin in Poland) to a prominent family of professors and physicians, Virchow studied medicine and chemistry at the Prussian Military Academy from 1839 to 1843. He served as assistant to physiologist Johannes P. Müller at the Charité teaching hospital in Berlin. There, Virchow was exposed to the scientific approach to medicine was emerging in England and France at the time, which he would later synthesize with social science as the basis for his social medicine.

In 1849, he became chair of pathological anatomy at the University of Würzburg and left his post at Charité. He returned to Charité in 1856, where he served as director of the Pathological Institute for the next two decades. He was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1861, and in 1892, he was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London. He died in Berlin on September 5, 1902.


"Medical statistics will be our standard of measurement: we will weigh life for life and see where the dead lie thicker, among the workers or among the privileged." (1848; quoted in Farmer 2001:1)

Major Publications

Virchow, R. C.
1848 Mittheilung über die in Oberschleisen Typhus-Epidemie (Report on the Typhus Epidemic in Upper Silesia)
1856 Gessamelte Abhandlungen der wissenschaftlichen Medicin (Collected essays on scientific medicine)
1875 Über einige Merkmale niederer Menschenrassen am Schädel (About several traits of the skulls of lower human races)
1876 Beiträge zur physischen Anthropologie der Deutschen (entries on the physical anthropology of the Germans)
1877 Die Freiheit der Wissenschaft im modernen Staat (The freedom of science in the modern state)
1879 Gesammelte Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiete der offentlichen Medizin und der Seuchenlehre (Collected essays on the topic of public health and epidemiology)
1880 Gegen die Antisemitismus (Against Antisemitism)

Further Reading

Ackerknecht, Erwin H.
1953 Rudolf Virchow: Doctor, Statesman, Anthropologist.

Eisenberg, L.
1986 Rudolf Virchow: the physician as politician. Medicine and War 2(4):243-250;

Farmer, Paul
2001 Infections and Inequalities.

Online Resources

Academy of Achievement: Paul Farmer --- a short biography of Paul Farmer citing Rudolf Virchow as one of his chief inspirations

Himetop: The History of Medical Topography Database --- includes locations and photographs of monuments dedicated to Rudolf Virchow and his tomb

Online text of "Report on the Typhus Epidemic in Upper Silesia" through Social Medicine

Social Medicine --- an online open-access journal devoted to the development and promotion of theory and practice of contemporary social medicine.

Whonamedit?: A Dictionary of Medical Eponyms --- a comprehensive list of medical conditions and discoveries named after Rudolf Virchow