Prescribing Democracy

by Danielle Ofri
New York Times Op-Ed

In the winter of 1847-48, a typhus epidemic raged through Upper Silesia. The Prussian king dispatched a young Dr. Rudolf Virchow to investigate the outbreak. Dr. Virchow would later achieve scientific sainthood for disposing of Hippocrates’ idea that humors caused disease, solidifying the idea that cells were the basis of biology and coining terms like leukemia, spina bifida, thrombosis and embolism. But in 1848, he was a 26-year-old lecturer in pathology at the Charité hospital in Berlin — a disposable junior faculty member who could be banished to the hinterlands.

What Dr. Virchow found in Upper Silesia was a district ravaged by famine and economic depression. The germ theory of disease hadn’t yet been fully accepted, so Dr. Virchow couldn’t pinpoint a bacterium as the agent of the outbreak. He was, however, able to identify the conditions that promulgated the disease — poor sanitation, terrible working conditions, inadequate housing, meager education and unhealthy diet. In other words, all the concerns of modern public health.

In his report, Dr. Virchow cited exploitation and lack of self-governance as the sources of those disease-promoting conditions. He excoriated the aristocrats who “expropriated great wealth from the Upper Silesian mines” but regarded the workers “not as human beings,” the government functionaries who served “the interests of the state” instead of the people, and the church that demonstrated “contemptible selfishness and lust for power.”

“There cannot be any doubt,” Dr. Virchow concluded, that the epidemic was a result of “the poverty and underdevelopment of Upper Silesia.” The prescription, he stated, should be “free and unlimited democracy.”

A prescription for democracy — not something you get at your average doctor’s visit…  (read the full op-ed in the New York Times)