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In the history of medicine, Rudolph Virchow (1821–1902) stands as “the greatest of all pathologists…in every way an intellectual giant”.1 Mackenbach’s review2 is a well-argued step in going beyond the pathology dimension, illuminating Virchow’s role in epidemiology and public health (see page 181).
When opening courses in epidemiology, I never miss the opportunity to refer to Virchow, stressing the key feature that in my view makes him a permanent model for epidemiologists: his breadth and force of synthesis, expressed both intellectually within his scientific work and behaviourally in joining science with civic engagement.
Throughout his long career, Virchow, the founder of cellular pathology, carried out thousands of necropsies, and his power of analysis, based on meticulous macroscopic and microscopic observations, was matched by the power of integrating, within an essentially physiological framework, notions at different levels of biological complexity, from chemistry to the population.
In Virchow’s words,3:
When I directed attention to the cell, I wished to coerce research workers to discover exactly the process inside the cell, the happenings inside the smallest elementary organism, and it was self-evident that continued …
Competing interests: None declared.
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