Red nose? Wrong Rudolf! We’ll celebrate that one later.
October 13 is when we remember the exceptional mind and career of the 19th century German physician born on that day, here at University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington and around the world.
So why was Dr. Virchow so special? Well, to start with, his life accomplishments could easily fill more than one resume. In addition to treating patients, he was a scientist, anthropologist and politician helping to shape the healthcare reforms introduced in Germany during the administration of Otto von Bismarck.
He is considered to be the father of modern pathology. Unlike the scientists of his time, he believed that clinical observation and animal experiments (to find the reason for disease or the effects of drugs) should guide medical sciences. He encouraged his students to use microscopes and to “think microscopically.”Two of them, William Welch and William Osler, were later among the founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Virchow’s colleagues still believed in humorism. What’s that?
Well, it certainly was not funny.
Humorism was adopted by Ancient Greek and Roman physicians, who believed that too much or too little of any of four distinct bodily fluids in a person – known as humors directly influences their temperament and health. Such became the most commonly held view of the human body among European physicians until the advent of modern medical research in the nineteenth century.
About one century earlier doctors used to believe even more fantastic theories. For instance that young mothers who complained of swollen leg after giving birth did so, because the leg was filled with milk (condition known as “milk leg”). Bed rest to “drain it” was the treatment of choice.
Close to three centuries later, the condition described above – deep vein thrombosis still unfortunately leaves patients – some in their prime – undiagnosed and sometimes without a chance to survive.
Rudolf Virchow was the first to explain the mechanism of pulmonary embolus. He documented that blood clots in the pulmonary artery originates from venous thrombi in the leg. His theory known today as Virchow’s triad still explains very well the complex reasons why venous clots develop in the first place.
Dr. Virchow was an outspoken public health advocate. His writings and teachings are full of observations and recommendations about ways to improve people’s health by improving their social conditions.
The mission of World Health Assembly is to reduce premature deaths by non-communicable disease — of which clots in the legs and lungs are an important part — by 25 percent by 2025. Let’s all support that goal on World Thrombosis Day by talking to our patients about their risk and symptoms, by encouraging those with disease and those at risk to join our seminar. It would be close to his heart.
Happy Birthday Dr. Virchow!
Margaret Kennedy, MD, is hematologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center. She is also co-director of the CME conference “Blood in Motion: Symposium on Thrombosis & Hemostasis,” which has taken place annually in Pittsburgh, PA, since 2005.