Rudolf Virchow: Discovery, Cell Theory & Contributions

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  • 0:04 Cell Theory Background
  • 1:28 Rudolf Virchow Biography
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Sujata Archer
Expert Contributor
Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

In this lesson, you will learn about the German scientist and physician Rudolf Ludwig Carl Virchow who played an important role in forwarding the cell theory, which laid the groundwork for modern day cellular pathology.

Cell Theory Background

Every student in biology class learns about cell theory. This theory has three main components: all living organisms are made of cells, cells are the basic unit of life for all living things, and all cells arise from pre-existing cells. It's the last theory that was popularized by German scientist and physician, Rudolf Virchow, and he laid the foundation for cellular pathology.

We're made of trillions of cells, but where do these cells come from? In 1855 Virchow published a statement based on his observations Omnis cellula e cellula, which means that all cells arise from pre-existing cells. This was not a new theory. A scientist by the name of Robert Remak had written about it, but it was the first time it received any attention and created a landmark in modern biology. Until Virchow came out with this theory, it was believed that new cells were created from a fluid called blastema. It was also accepted in the early 1850s that imbalances in blastema caused diseases. Virchow used the theory that all cells arise from pre-existing cells to lay the groundwork for cellular pathology, or the study of disease at the cellular level. His work made it more clear that diseases occur at the cellular level. His work led to scientists being able to diagnose diseases more accurately.

Rudolf Virchow Biography

Rudolf Virchow was a scientist, physician, anthropologist, social scientist, and politician. His ideas were very progressive and set the foundation of not only cellular pathology, but also the role of societal structures in health and disease.

Rudolf Virchow was born in 1821 in modern day Poland. He had considered to become a pastor when he was a young boy, but instead decided to study medicine. In 1843 he graduated from medical college and in 1845 he published his first paper on leukemia. He had conducted an autopsy and based on the pathology called the disease leukemia, which in Greek means leukos (white) aima (blood). This work inspired him to continue teaching pathological anatomy.

The greatest contributions from Virchow are documented in the areas of medicine. Using his skills and knowledge of tissues at the cellular level he contributed to the modern day understanding of atherosclerosis. Virchow recognized that atherosclerosis was an inflammatory process. He's also credited for showing that fibrin played a key role leading to blood clots. Although he made some key discoveries in cellular medicine he rejected the germ theory. Virchow's work in cellular pathology was his crowning glory. Up until then, diseases were only defined on their characteristics and symptoms. With his work at the cellular level, diseases were diagnosed based on anatomical changes. Virchow's work on cellular pathology earned him the title of 'the father of pathology.'

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Additional Activities

Writing as Rudolf Virchow

Rudolf Virchow was not only a brilliant scientist, but he was also involved in politics. Through his combined professions, he was able to make several important changes to the infrastructure and daily life in Berlin. After completing this lesson on Virchow, students will write a persuasive speech from the perspective of Virchow convincing the city council to make one of the changes.

Begin by having students enter the mindset of Virchow. Have them think about both his personal and professional life. Then, have them choose one of the issues from the list below:

  • Need for a sewer system in the city
  • Worms in meat/ meat inspectors
  • Military hospitals
  • False superiority of German race

With this issue in mind, students will research more about what Virchow knew on their selected topic. Then, they will write a letter or speech to the Berlin city council asking them to create a change related to this. The speech/letter should include evidence for why it needs to change, the appropriate suggested change. It should use both facts and persuasive language to convince the other members of city council.


To the Berlin City Council-

My scientific studies have led to extensive studies of the German race and principals surrounding evolution and the differences between races. It is based on this research that I need to make several important announcements on the differences between races, which has been an important topic in recent historical events...

(The student letter would go on to list what the research concluded.)

Remind students that since they are writing as Virchow, their document needs to be written from the 1800s and is written from the first-person perspective.

If this is completed in a group setting, students can share their letters or speeches once they have finished.

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