Cellular Pathology

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Cellular Pathology


a theory in medicine based on R. Virchow’s view that the cell is the material substratum of disease. The theory, formulated from 1855 to 1858, sought to overcome the limitations of humoral pathology and of those concepts that viewed all diseases as caused by changes in the body’s solid particles and by disorders of the nervous system. The scientific and methodological basis of cellular pathology was the cell theory of the structure of organisms, as well as the findings of microscopy.

The basic principles of Virchow’s theory were as follows: (1) The cell is the ultimate morphological element of all living things, and outside the cell neither normal nor pathological vital activity exists. (2) Every cell originates from another cell. (3) Any living being is a cellular government—that is, an aggregate of units, each of which contains all that is necessary for life. (4) The body has no anatomical physiological center that controls the activity of individual elements. The body’s unity is not controlled either by the circulatory and nervous systems or by the brain or other structural units; it is controlled by the continuous organization of cells. (5) Each cell maintains a certain degree of independence; changes in the body may be limited by a single cell. (6) All pathology is cellular pathology. Disease is a local process, and no physician can have a clear concept of a disease unless he is able to indicate the specific area of the pathological process.

The extensive factual material that served as the basis of cellular pathology fostered the development of medicine, aiding in the study of the morphological changes in the body during diseases, the detection of pathogenesis, and the improvement of diagnosis. However, Virchow, and particularly his followers, although they opposed “uninformed scientific trends based on mechanics and chemistry,” founded their own theories on mechanical materialism and on vitalism—trends that viewed as the basis of life “a communicated, derived force that must be distinguished from the molecular forces acting alongside it.”

A number of Virchow’s approaches were justifiably criticized by I. M. Sechenov and other advanced Russian scientists. These included Virchow’s theory of the personification of the cell, his refusal to acknowledge the interrelationship of the body with changing external and internal environmental conditions, and his underestimation of the role of hormonal and neural factors in the development of disease. Subsequent achievements of science, particularly those dealing with neurohumoral factors and with subcellular and molecular structures, have demonstrated that the theory of cellular pathology is one-sided and erroneous. Such achievements have made it possible to synthesize and draw on the valuable elements in theories based on the predominance of the cell, the humors (body fluids), or the nervous system.


Virchow, R. Tselliuliarnaia patologiia kak uchenie, osnovannoe na fiziologicheskoi ipatologicheskoi gistologii, 2nd ed. St. Petersburg, 1871. (Translated from German.)
Davydovskii, I. V. “K stoletiiu ’tselliuliarnoi patologii’ Rudol’fa Virkhova.” Arkhiv patologii, 1956, vol. 18, no. 5.


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