Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Prof. Rudolf Virchow, who was born on October 13, 1821 in Schivelbein (today Świdwin in Poland), was a renowned physician, pathologist, biologist, anthropologist, writer as well as a highly respected member of the Prussian Parliament and later of the Reichstag (Imperial Diet), whose list of achievements is simply too long to give here in detail.
Suffice to say that Prof. Virchow was not only the first person to precisely describe and name leukaemia, embolism, thrombosis and chordoma (among others) but he was also the first to both notice AND prove the existence of animal infectious diseases which could be passed onto humans. His work on Trichinella spiralis, or “pork worm”, showed without any doubt that the parasite causing trichinosis in both animals and humans was originally carried by the former and passed onto the latter. Virchow´s recommendation that meat, before eating, should be prepared at the minimum temperature of 37° helped reduce the number of such cases. His presented the results of his research in a series of lectures he gave at what came to be known as Berlin´s “Trichinentempel” – the Tieranatomisches Theater or Animal Anatomy Operation Theatre – now the oldest lecture room in the city.
Rudolf Virchow also helped reduce the spreading of many other diseases: as a strong believer in social medicine, Virchow fought to improve the living conditions in Berlin and beyond. Had not been for him, the lengthy debate over whether the capital truly needs a proper sewerage system – which had been going on for years (just to remind you, Berlin was the last big European city to get one) – would most probably gone on for a while longer. Professor Virchow´s research and recommendations forced the Municipal Council of Berlin finally to start building. Following in the same vein, they also built municipal hospitals, proper market halls and schools. All of the above on Virchow´s advice.
Two interesting things worth knowing about Virchow, things which make his image less god-like and serious: despite his scientific mind and his lack of any religious inclinations (he was an agnostic), Virchow considered Darwin´s theory of evolution nothing but humbug. He claimed, for instance, that the skeleton remains of the Neanderthal, an archaic human, found in a grotto in North Rhein – Westphalia were nothing but deformed remains of a homo sapiens.
The second fact from Virchow´s biography is an anecdote: Virchow was an outspoken critic of Bismarck´s, especially of his armament programme. The physician believed that the money would be better spent on improving the living conditions of the people. Offended, Bismarck demanded satisfaction and challenged Virchow to a duel. One version of the story has it that when allowed to pick his weapons, Virchow went for two pork sausages: one absolutely fine and one… ridden with Trichinella spiralis. Bismarck, perhaps wisely, chose to pass.
Prof. Rudolf Virchow died in Berlin on September 5, 1902. He was buried four days later at the Old Saint Matthew Cemetery (Alter Sankt-Matthäus-Kirchhof) in Schöneberg.