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Ken Donaldson1, Christopher Henry2

Author Affiliations: 

1Senior Research Fellow, Surgeons Hall Museums, Edinburgh and Emeritus Professor of Respiratory Toxicology, University of Edinburgh; 2Director of Heritage, Surgeons Hall Museums, Edinburgh, UK

Correspondence to: 

Professor Ken Donaldson, Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Nicolson Street, Edinburgh EH8 9DW, UK


Journal Issue: 
Volume 50: Issue 2: 2020
Cite paper as: 
J R Coll Physicians Edinb 2020; 50: 188–95



In 1869 Rudolf Virchow, the distinguished Prussian pathologist who pioneered the modern concept of cellular pathology, was offered an honorary Fellowship of The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE). However, the Rev. Joseph T Goodsir, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE), the brother of Professor John Goodsir FRSE, the famed Edinburgh anatomist who had died two years previously, mounted a campaign to stop the award. As part of this he published a pamphlet entitled Grounds of Objection to the Admission of Professor Virchow as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The disagreement centred on John Goodsir’s pioneering research and writings on cell theory. These had in fact been recognised by Virchow, who dedicated the English language edition of his most famous publication Cellular Pathology to John Goodsir. Joseph Goodsir was not, however, satisfied by this and the basis of his objection was that Virchow had plagiarised from his brother. We describe the background and outcome of this dispute.

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The Royal Society of Edinburgh was established in 1783 and its Fellowship is a greatly valued honour, recognising significant contributions to medicine, science, letters and public life. Additionally, a small number of Honorary Fellows are elected each year based on truly outstanding contributions to science or letters globally. In the past, Honorary FRSEs have included such diverse figures as John James Audubon, Lord Kelvin, Robert Ferguson and Paul Ehrlich. In 1869 Rudolf Virchow, the greatest pathologist of his age, was nominated for an Honorary FRSE. Virchow’s international renown was based largely on his celebrated book Cellular Pathology,1 which condensed his previous research and other available knowledge into 20 lectures and brought to the medical profession a step change in the way of looking at pathology. It was published in many languages and the English edition was dedicated to John Goodsir FRSE (1814–1867), who had died two years previously. John Goodsir was sometime Conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and Professor of Anatomy in the University of Edinburgh. His brother Joseph Taylor Goodsir FRSE (1815–1893), however, mounted local opposition to Virchow’s election to Honorary Fellowship of the RSE. This extended to the private publication of a pamphlet entitled Grounds of Objection to the Admission of Professor Virchow as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.2 This pamphlet was circulated amongst the FRSEs.

Rudolf Virchow

Rudolf Ludwig Carl Virchow (1821–1902) (Figure 1) was born in what is now Poland and studied medicine from 1839 to 1843 at the Friedrich-Wilhelms University, now the Humboldt University of Berlin.3 In a stellar career he became recognised for melding together the two emerging ideas of anatomical pathology and cell theory, thereby developing a new cell- and tissue-based concept of pathology. He published over 2,000 papers and his book Cellular Pathology1 laid out this new discipline as a series of lectures; it was immensely influential. Subsequently Virchow has been named as the ‘father of modern pathology’4 and he accumulated numerous honours over his lifetime in recognition of his work, coined many pathological terms and had many anatomical terms named after him.3,4

Figure 1 Rudolf Virchow

In the face of this recognition and celebrity, it is surprising to learn that when the Royal Society of Edinburgh offered Virchow an Honorary Fellowship, there was local opposition. The reason lies in the development of the understanding of cells and the origin and maintenance of tissues that was developing across the world and especially in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. All of this was available to Virchow, in addition to his own considerable researches, when he was assembling his case for the cell-based system of pathology summarised in Cellular Pathology. In particular, in 1845 the Edinburgh anatomist John Goodsir had published on cell theory, on how tissues originated, how they were maintained and their autonomous nature.Virchow was impressed by Goodsir’s writings on this topic as well as Goodsir’s work on the laying down of bone by cells we now know as osteoblasts.6,7 Virchow recognised Goodsir’s contribution by dedicating the English language version of Cellular Pathology to him (Figure 2). He also cited Goodsir once in Cellular Pathology, but as described below, Goodsir’s supporters, especially his brother Joseph Taylor Goodsir, felt that Goodsir’s contribution had not been adequately recognised by Virchow in Cellular Pathology.

Figure 2 The dedication to John Goodsir that appears at the start of Virchow’s Cellular Pathology

John Goodsir

John Goodsir (Figure 3) was born one of six siblings, in the fishing village of Anstruther in Fife, where his father and grandfather had been doctors. Three of his brothers also became doctors: Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir (1819–1848), known as Harry, Robert Anstruther Goodsir (1823–1895) and Archibald Goodsir (1826-–1849). Harry eventually became Assistant Surgeon on the ill-fated Franklin expedition of 1845. Another brother, Joseph Taylor Goodsir (1815–1893), studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh and upon ordination returned to East Fife as a minister. He wrote several books on religious matters and in 1868 he was elected FRSE.John Goodsir attended St Andrews University between 1827 and 1830, then transferred to Edinburgh University Medical School and also attended classes at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd). Goodsir was first taught by and then worked with, Robert Knox, then the most eminent anatomist in Edinburgh. In 1841, as Goodsir’s reputation as an anatomist grew, he was invited to become Conservator at the museum of the RCSEd. In 1843 he became Curator of the University of Edinburgh anatomy collection, while Harry Goodsir took over Conservatorship of the Surgeons’ Hall Museum of the RCSEd, which had recently been expanded by the incorporation of the Bell and Barclay collections.9