“The Physician Is the Natural Attorney of the Poor”: White Coat Conversations

“The Physician Is the Natural Attorney of the Poor”: White Coat Conversations

Frank L. Meyskens, MD

Jan 28, 2015

University of California, San Francisco 1968: The days of rage, Haight-Ashbury nearby; a second-year medical student in pathology naively asking the section pathologist, “Who was this Virchow guy who had so many eponyms?” A quixotic look, the enigmatic answer, and later in the library (no Internet back then), I was introduced to the great but little publicized 19th-century biomedical scientist/physician and pathologist/humanist/ethicist/ genius Rudolf Virchow, born 1821, much ahead of his time then and more relevant today than ever. In this and subsequent blogs, we will explore the meaning, inferences, and implications of the quote in the title.

The availability of health care in the U.S.A. has become a public barometer of inequality, affecting many. The basis of this inequity is complex and misunderstood by most but has now become one standard measure of our democracy. Transparency is through frosted glass, the dollars replacing healing as the matrix for success, artificial quality measures and surveys serving as balm for the wound.

Many have asked and I concur: “Are people and politicians alike ever ready to hear and act on the uncomfortable truths that are discussed only behind closed doors?”

In June 1848, Virchow started a weekly newspaper, Medical Reform, for the purpose of promoting social medicine. One of his first banners was the quote in the title of this blog; one year later, political pressure closed the publication, and Virchow was fired from his public position and banished to the political hinterlands. And now, 150 years later, the cycle is in full swing again—gross inequality and prejudice across all important metrics: health, wealth, justice, righteousness driving the fire.

“The physician is the natural attorney of the poor?” For now, though, the profession and medicine itself should engage, for it is at risk, healing and empathy becoming a commodity.

Am I ready to engage? Are you?


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