Virchow's Story:

Discovery of the Life Cycle


Rudolph Virchow, the famous German pathologist, with a lot of help from fellow countrymen Rudolph Leukart (Rudolph was apparently a very popular name in Germany in those days) and Friedrich Zenker, is generally acknowledged as the person who, through basic laboratory experimentation, deciphered the essentials of the life cycle of Trichinella spiralis. All this happened from the middle 1850's to the 1870's. To do so, Virchow took advantage of serendipity; an old dog and a fresh cadaver whose muscle tissue was riddled with white flecks, just like those Sir Richard Owen and Sir James Paget encountered in 1835. Microscopic examination confirmed that the flecks were, indeed, Trichinella spiralis larvae just waiting to be eaten. Rudolph then fed his poor unsuspecting canine a large quantity of this infected human muscle tissue. Days later, when he autopsied the now dead dog, he observed the enteral stage (adult worm) in the small intestine, and concluded correctly that trichinella may cause disease in humans, as well. Most importantly, Virchow discovered that if the infected meat is first heated to 137 F for a minimum of 10 min, the worms were no longer infective. He experimented vigorously and wrote extensively about the life of this worm (see: front piece from Lebre von den Trichinen), and began traveling around the German countryside extolling the virtues of eating well-done ham and well-done other pork products, too.

The story gets a bit fuzzy from this point on. Rawfleisch (lightly smoke-cured ham), an almost sacred national food specialty, and other under-cooked pork dishes, were now first-class nicht nichts, at least according to the brash and confident Rudolph. Needless to say, the German Veterinarian’s Society took exception to the contents of his speeches and eventually assigned a veterinarian to follow him about and loudly contradict his statements. Rudy quickly grew weary of such potentially harmful public relations hype, and eventually rose to the occasion. One day, unbeknownst to his unworthy opponent, Virchow brought him a “special” surprise package. He loudly announced to the gathering tumult the full contents of the smallish, brown paper-wrapped object in his hand - a piece of fresh, rawfleisch au trichinella. The now highly regarded scientist proceeded to carefully, slowly unwrap it and hold it out, offering it to the now embarrassed animal doctor. A pregnant silence could be heard all the way back to Berlin. The nay-sayer, after just a few seconds of carefully measured introspective thought, all the while eyeing the meat, then eyeing Rudolph’s devilishly sinister smiling face urging him to accept his "gift," then to the meat again, and so on, finally uttered: "Nein"!, while the chant rising from the crowd in front of them sounded something like: "Esse, esse, esse." Thus did the veterinarian decline to dine.

Needless to say, Rudolph’s reputation as a pathologist grew faster after this incident, and as the result, he became more and more pro-active. He even went so far as to become a member of the prestigious Rathause. While expounding one day before that distinguished political body, he inadvertently managed to argue against a policy established by none other than Baron von Bismarck, himself; a grosse-nicht nicht! As the offended person, the Baron challenged Virchow to a duel, and this gave Virchow the first choice of weapons. The story goes on that Rudolph chose sausages, one with and one without you-know-who. Upon carefully explaining the potential lethality of his weaponry to Bismarck, the now somewhat enraged and thoroughly frustrated Baron also declined to dine. As fate would have it, the two protagonists soon thereafter developed a lasting friendship – even becoming kindred spirits. In light of the fact that both rose to their respective stations in life by first studying and then employing pathology of one sort or another, it's easy to see what fueled the chemistry between them.


Rudolf Ludwig Carl Virchow, MD

Virchow and friends

Front Page of a Review Article by Virchow

Baron von Bismarck