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Institute for Transcultural
Health Sciences (IntraG)

Rudolf Virchow Study Center

Rudolf Virchow and Transcultural Health Sciences

Rudolf Virchow is one of the founders of modern medicine. His name is synonymous with strictly scientific oriented medicine.  Today’s academic medicine looks upon him as one of its most important fathers. Interestingly, there are a couple of important points of departure in Virchow’s Opus that lead to Transcultural Health Sciences.

Bild Andree

Rudolf Virchow Sämtliche Werke. Abt. V - Virchowiana - Materialien und Dokumente. Herausgegeben von Christian Andree. Band V,1: Neue Beiträge zur Virchow-Forschung. Festschrift zum 70. Geburtstag von Christian Andree. Mit einem Anhang "Editionen in der Wissenschaftsgeschichte". Herausgegeben von Ingo Wirth.

The editor of the edition Rudolf Virchow Complete Works, Prof. Dr. phil. et med. habil. Christian Andree, was honoured on the occasion of his 70th birthday on November 28, 2008, with a symposium Neue Beiträge zur Virchow-Forschung [New Contributions to Virchow Research]. The contributions to this conference at the Viadrina in Frankfurt Oder are available in a commemorative publication. The introductory greeting by Prof. Hartmut Schröder deals with the topic “Rudolf Virchow and Transcultural Health Sciences”. The commemorative publication offers a very good window into the manifold work of Virchow and Prof. Andree. It was printed with support from the International Academy for Homotoxicology. 

June 17, 2010 Doctoral Defence of the dissertation"Die Darstellung Rudolf Virchows in der Vossischen Zeitung im Zeitraum vom 1. Januar 1844 bis zum 31. Dezember 1865" [The Representation of Rudolf Virchow in the Vossische Zeitung during the Period of 1st of January 1844 until the 31st of December 1865.] by Lars Harald Feddersen.

The dissertation, supervised by Prof. Christian Andree, deals with two central historical notables of modern Prussian and German history: one of the most important medical doctors of the 19th and 20th centuries presented in a phase of his life which was very important for him, and the first newspaper for which the modern attribute “news magazine” is the best fitting description. Rudolf Virchow is known to many scholars mainly as a researcher of the late 19th century, but he had already developed his central thesis by 1865. The theory of cellular pathology, for instance, was presented as early as 1858. Since the 1840s he was known for his descriptions of diseases such as thrombosis and leukaemia. Additionally, he was a reformer of medical care, and was part of the revolution in 1848.

During those years the Vossischen Zeitung developed a profile as the leading newspaper of the liberal bourgeoisie in Prussia. Newspaper and researcher fitted well together in their aims.

The research of Lars Harald Feddersen on this phase of history from the development and the effects of Rudolf Virchow reflected in the Vossischen Zeitung is of great merit. His dissertation is an important milestone on the way to a cultural historical understanding of the history of medicine, representing interdisciplinarity and  transcultural thinking not just in empty words, but as challenges to be met.

The concept of Transcultural Health Sciences is expressed in brief in the concepts of transculturality as well as in the notions of Integrative Medicine and Narrative Medicine, both of which make clear that we need the interface between medicine, psychology and cultural sciences.


Transcultural health sciences are represented by the following viewpoints:

a)      they address the way human beings relate to health and illness in a holistic manner

b)      they are not restricted merely to the physical and mental dimension of health and disease, but also take the social aspects into consideration and are therefore social sciences, just as WHO stipulates in its definition of health

c)       they start from a systemic understanding of healing and keeping healthy, and look at the roles of therapy in supporting self-regulation, emphasising natural medical interventions

d)      they cannot be reduced to one single medical theory but see their task as addressing other medical systems, such as in medical anthropology, without prejudice, and using useful methods through cultural transfer for our own culture

e)      they are both pluralistic and pragmatic in principle, and put the patient and the focus on the patient at the centre of all knowledge and application endeavours.


There is a clear parallel to those viewpoints in the Virchow’s Opus: 

a)      Regarding the topic of holism, Virchow admonishes that a doctor should never forget that “he has to deal with the human being as a whole” [1]. In 1849, in his preface to his  “Einheits-Bestrebungen in der wissenschaftlichen Medicin“, he formulated his general principle [2]

“Although verbally only healing art, scientific medicine has always posited itself the task of, and must provide, sub-teaching on the human being as a whole unit. Since the earliest times when medicine moved from being a priesthood to becoming a medical profession, this type of holy tradition has remained, that it should become the sum of all knowledge of man, and although the need to share the workload has led to an ever- increasing split of the original unitary science, this striving for unity has never been wholly suppressed”.

b)      Regarding the social aspects of health and disease, Virchow has always demanded, long before the modern health sciences were established, that medicine should be a social science. The social political component is underlined by Virchow in his comments on “Die Epidemien von 1848” which regard disease

“not only as something personal and specific, but as the expression of life under changed conditions, following the same laws that have been valid at all times from the first moment until death in a living body. If someone falls ill, mentally or physically, which in our view is the same thing, we will always see the same life in front of us with the same laws, only that those are manifested under different conditions. Every general disease, whether it is physical or mental, expresses therefore the life of the population in general and under abnormal conditions. And it is necessary for us to understand this abnormality, and it is necessary for politicians to contribute to its abolishment [3]”.

c)       Regarding natural therapy as a principle of self-regulation, Virchow’s ideas at the end of his life in 1889 are very close to those of natural medicine in our time, and are again the same as those which he had previously expressed in 1845 as a young doctor when he said [4]:

 “The treatment of the diseased body consists simply of eliciting the favourable conditions for life, so making best use of the physiological experience”.

d)      Regarding Medical Anthropology, we can point to Virchow’s comprehensive interest in other peoples and his specific interest in the medical treatments in those foreign cultures. The publications that appeared between 1870 and 1902 authored by different medical writers and natural scientists in the acts of the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Ancient History, as well is in the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, show that Virchow seeded many studies in the alternative medical and medical anthropology field and supported the research in these areas.

e)      Finally, we find a lot of publications in Virchow concerning pluralism, pragmatism as well as patient orientation in medicine. Virchow thought all means that helped to reach the goal “health” legitimate. This can be seen in his paper “Specifiker und Specifisches” from 1852 [5]. Also, the following text shows that Virchow wanted all therapeutic means used, and that patient orientation was at the centre.  Virchow wrote in 1888 [6]:

“in such a desperate situation that is created through a carcinoma in a person it is allowed to also use such means about whose efficacy we have no clear image. This is the field for therapeutic experiments, but surely not experiments with everything that has been proposed by any romantic or desperado, but with means for whose efficacy there are comparatively well-documented observations known. Apart from fresh and limited carcinoma that can be attacked with the knife or any other means of destruction, there is a large number of malign growths against which any surgical intervention is hopeless, such that there is always a possibility to test pharmaceutical interventions.”


Transcultural Health Sciences and Rudolf Virchow have many commonalities and are not in opposition.

Thus it makes sense to express this through integrating Forschungsstelle Rudolf Virchow at the Institute of Transcultural Health Sciences and thus to combine complementary and orthodox Medicine and work against the division within modern medicine. This is in the spirit of Virchow as rivalries between medical disciplines can be viewed as counterproductive, as the following piece documents [7]:

“Medicine does not have any need of fighting schools, parties that fight each other in their goal, but only of competition after the very same and equal prize, even though using different means. One may want to progress through anatomical studies of the disease, the other may want to emphasise clinical observation of those processes, the third though observation of the pathological, the fourth through a therapeutic experiment, another through chemical or physical, and still another through historical research: science is big enough to allow all those different directions: if they do not want to become exclusive, if they are not overstepping their boundaries, and if they do not pretend to be able to do everything. Making too large a promise has always been detrimental, too large a demand has always been painful, self-aggrandisement has always offended or contributed to ridicule.”


[1] Rudolf Virchow: Ueber die Heilkräfte des Organismus. Vortrag, gehalten am 2. Januar 1875 im Verein für Kunst und Wissenschaft zu Hamburg, Berlin, Lüderitz’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Carl Habel 1875, S. 15.

[2] Vgl. Christian Andree (Hrsg. u. Bearb.): Rudolf Virchow, Sämtliche Werke Bd. 16.1, Abt. I: Medizin: Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur wissenschaftlichen Medicin 1856, Teil 1, Nachdr. d. Ausg. Frankfurt a. M. 1856, Hildesheim, Zürich, New York, Olms 2007, S. 4.

[3] Vgl. Christian Andree (Hrsg. u Bearb.): Rudolf Virchow, Sämtliche Werke Bd. 28.1, Abt. I: Medizin: Gesammelte Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiete der Öffentlichen Medicin und der Seuchenlehre 1879, 1. Band, Nachdr. d. Aug. Berlin 1879, Hildesheim, Zürich, new York, Olms 2006, S. 119.

[4] Rudolf Virchow: Die Nothwendigkeit einer Bearbeitung der Medizin vom mechanischen Standpunkt, erläutert durch das Beispiel der Venenentzündung. Vortrag zur Erinnerung an die Stiftung vor 50 Jahren am 2. August 1845, Berlin, Akademie Verlag 1986, S. 69.

[5] Rudolf Virchow: Specifiker und Specifisches, in: Virchows Archiv 6, 1. Heft, 1852, S. 3-33.

[6] Rudolf Virchow: Zur Diagnose und Prognose des Carcinoms, in: Virchows Archiv 111, 1. Heft, 1888, S. 23.

[7] S. Anm. 5, S. 5.