Most of us cut our basic science teeth on Virchow and his eponymous trail of conditions. Rudolf Ludwig Carl Virchow had a penchant for naming things pathological. To be fair he discovered a good number of them. His colleagues referred to him as the Pope of Medicine. Not only do we have Virchow’s node (the malignant herald in the left supraclavicular fossa), and Virchow’s triad (the holy trinity of clotting), but we also have Virchow-Robin spaces (perivascular fluid), and Virchow-Seckel Syndrome (microcephalic primordial dwarfism). It may surprise you to learn that, in addition, he was the first to describe many other pathological entities, upon which he selflessly declined to bestow his name, such as leukaemia, amyloid, and spina bifida.
Today’s column, however, does not sing the praises of Virchow’s discoveries, but instead delves into one of his lesser known interactions with a political figure of the time. Before we cross to his opponent, it’s worth knowing that Virchow took a great interest in the parasitic roundworm, Trichinella, in 1865. Trichinosis was, at the time, cutting a great swathe of often fatal illness through pre-Germany, and our man, Virchow, was hell-bent on getting to the bottom of it. Uncooked sausages were found to be a common culprit, which is where our story gets a little unusual.
Let us turn our attention to Otto Von Bismarck. Otto was a shrewd politician and was named President of Prussia by King Wilhelm in 1862. Von Bismarck and Virchow were not friends. Virchow also dabbled liberally in politics, and the two powerful men clashed over almost all issues political. Things took a nasty turn over proposed funding for the Navy. Insults were traded, which then escalated. A savage bout of slander was fought out in public letters. In 1865, Bismarck had had quite enough, and formally requested Virchow to retract his accusations of dishonesty. Virchow would not. And thus, like all men of honour, the only way to resolve such a dispute, was the call to a duel. Now, because Virchow was the challenged party, in the long-held stipulations and regulations of duelling, he had the choice of weapons. Not being a particularly brawly man, he chose, allegedly, wait for it, a sausage. A snag. A snorker. A frank. A wiener. A banger (just in case you were in any doubt this is an internationally relevant column). Bismarck and Virchow would eat a single sausage each – one of which was riddled with trichinosis, leading to a delayed and painful death, and the other would have a good meal. Despite a flurry of correspondence (and the fact that by then, duels were pretty much illegal), and several more insults, the challenge dissolved. No sausage battle was fought.
This story, however, which has been passed down through the ages and has been the source of much marvel and entertainment (and is now established deep in internet fokelore), is probably not true. It was first recorded in, of all places, a Homeopathic journal, in 1893. The challenge to duel was true; the sausage story, sadly just titillation, fittingly, in a journal that even back then was happy to publish untruths and sensationalism.
The point, though, of this story, is not necessarily to learn about the wurst activities of one of pathology’s greats, but to view a perspective on argument. Duelling was one way of dealing with disagreement, and it was surprisingly tidy (unless you were a second). It was discreet and involved little collateral.
Fast forward to disagreements today. I was reminded of the blunderbuss fallout, the coliseum nature, the rampant pile-ons that occur in social media. Medicine, unfortunately, is not immune.