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Earth wearing a face mask

In the winter of 1848, a 26-year-old Prussian pathologist named Rudolf Virchow was sent to investigate a typhus epidemic raging in Upper Silesia, in what is now mostly Poland.

After three weeks of meticulous observation of the stricken populace — during which he carefully counted typhus cases and deaths by age, sex, occupation and social class — he returned with a 190-page report that ultimately blamed poverty and social exclusion for the epidemic and deemed it an unnecessary crisis. “I am convinced that if you changed these conditions, the epidemic would not recur,” he wrote.

Dr. Virchow was only a few years out of medical school, but his report became the foundational document of the new discipline of social medicine. His vision for health went far beyond individuals and the pathogens lurking inside them: He pioneered the careful epidemiological examination of social conditions such as housing, education, diet and lifestyle, and he denounced the rigid social stratification perpetuated at the time by the Catholic Church.

The same conditions of inequality that produced the Silesian typhus epidemic would soon foment... see more