Germany, 1865. A man, wealthy and powerful, gets into an argument with a colleague who calls him out for being the habitual liar that he is. Enraged, he challenges his accuser to a duel. The challenger has a military background and is no stranger to weapons and dueling. The challenged, a meek physician scientist, has probably never been around anything more menacing than a Bunsen burner. This is no match; the blowhard military man is virtually guaranteed to kill the scientist.
As per custom, the challenged gets to choose weapons. Pistols? Swords? Fencing foils? No, the challenged had a better idea: sausages. In his laboratory, the scientist studies the parasitic roundworm Trichinella spiralis. His response shifts the odds from 1,000-to-1 to 50-50. One sausage will be injected with saline, the other with a hefty dose of a live culture of Trichinella, and the challenger chooses which one to eat, while the other eats the remaining sausage. Bummer if you get the one filled with the parasite. With that dose, you’ll have massive inflammation of your muscles, lungs, heart, and brain, probably followed by multi-organ system failure and a horrible death. Faced with even chances, instead of a bully’s advantage, the challenger quickly withdraws his challenge.
That alone would make the scientist, Rudolf Virchow, one of my heroes. But more importantly, Virchow almost single-handedly invented the notion that good science can be a weapon in the service of social justice, at a time when there was damn little good science or social justice. In the process, he generated one of my all-time favorite quotes. In it, he uses “physician” in the broad, 19th-century sense of the word, which means that it includes the biomedical scientist and researcher, along with the clinical physician. The quote concerns the adverse effects, scars, and pathologies caused by being poor, by being a chronically subordinated human mired in the corrosive psychosocial stress of poverty. “Physicians,” Virchow wrote, “are the natural attorneys of the poor.” As a neurobiologist and primatologist who studies what the stress of social inequality does to health, Virchow’s quote could serve as the rationale for my career.
I was introduced to Virchow pretty indirectly. We all have our period of adolescent imprudence, where at a later age, we’ll look back and wonder, “What was I thinking?” For me, my errant youth involved studying neuroanatomy. In college, I got obsessed with the subject: Some tiny, obscure little part of the brain has a multisyllabic name, and it sends a multisyllabically named projection to another tiny sub-region, which in turn projects to eleventy other regions. Whoa, you can memorize all those names and connections and tell them to everyone you know! I was sure this exercise in folly would attract girls.
I had a favorite neuroanatomical term. The brain is wrapped in three layers of insulation, called the meninges, and in between the two inner ones is a tiny, microscopic compartment called the Virchow-Robin space. You can’t get more obscure than that, and tossing out the term buffed up my cachet among my fellow neuroanatomy dorks. I had no idea who Robin was, but Virchow was this Virchow. When not responding to dueling challenges, I learned, Virchow was, among other things, the first to thoroughly describe the Virchow-Robin space. I was delighted to think that he must have been the king of itsby-bitsy reductionist science, removing his monocle to peer through his microscope.
We all have our period of adolescent imprudence, where at a later age, we’ll look back and wonder, “What was I thinking?”
As a physician and scientist, Virchow basically founded modern pathology, and started a pathology journal that still bears his name. He published a monumental cell biology text, more than 2,000 scientific articles, first described and named “embolism,” “thrombosis,” “spina bifida,” and “leukemia.” But, showing his focus wasn’t just on the miniscule and reductive in science, he was also a pioneer in the field of public health. His roundworm research on how meat could be a vector for Trichinosis helped spawn the concept of meat inspection.
So Virchow was the master of two very different intellectual domains, which is cool. But he was also a politician and a newspaper editor, and an archeologist who accompanied Heinrich Schliemann, discoverer of Troy, on expeditions. He did some of the first studies of Neanderthal bones, and founded Germany’s first anthropological society and journal.
So the guy was a polymath, big time. But most importantly and heroically to me, virtually all of Virchow’s varied interests were interconnected in a passionate way. Virchow was entwined with two shattering events. One was the 1847 typhus epidemic in Prussia, which he battled helplessly. The main lesson he took from that disaster was the extent to which being society’s downtrodden translates into poor health. The other was the failed revolution of 1848, in which he participated (which cost him his professorship). The main lesson he took from that disaster was how brutally those in power can crush the downtrodden who dare to question the nature of things.
From this came an intense commitment to a progressive agenda. Virchow railed against the pseudo-scientific social Darwinism. He fought to decrease the power of the Catholic church in Germany. As an anthropologist, he was a leading anti-racist, conducting studies that showed, among other things, that Jews shouldn’t count as a separate (i.e., inferior) “race.” He trained a new generation of doctors, one of whom became the father of public health in Chile and passed on Virchow’s vision of medicine’s social responsibility to a medical student named Salvador Allende. As a politician, he became the leader of the left-leaning radical party in the Reichstag. It was during his attempts to decrease the size of the military budget that he called none other than the Minister President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, a liar, resulting in the sausage duel.1
All in all, a remarkable, inspiring man. Plus, he had one great beard.
1. To my deep distress, long after I first read about the duel, I learned it may have been apocryphal, and that Virchow merely declined the challenge and told Bismarck to, in effect, grow up.
Robert Sapolsky is a professor of biology, neurology, and neurosurgery at Stanford University, and author of A Primate’s Memoir and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. His newest book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst will be published in the spring.
Watch: Robert Sapolsky explains the point of breaking free of our genes.
A version of this article was originally published in our “Heroes” issue in December, 2016.