Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Bismarck fears the wurst

I seem to have known forever the apocryphal story about a proposed duel with sausages between the conservative German statesman Otto von Bismarck and his liberal/radical political antagonist (and groundbreaking biologist) Rudolph Virchow. The current edit of the Wikipedia article on Virchow (06:16, 16 July 2012) summarises it as follows ...
The Sausage Duel
As a co-founder and member of the liberal party (Deutschen Fortschrittspartei) he was a leading political antagonist of Bismarck. He was opposed to Bismarck’s excessive military budget, which angered Bismarck sufficiently to challenge Virchow to a duel in 1865. There are two versions of this anecdote: in one version, Virchow declined because he considered dueling an uncivilized way to solve a conflict. The second has passed into legend but was well documented in the contemporary scientific literature. It states that Virchow, having been the challenged and therefore entitled to choose the weapons, selected two pork sausages: a cooked sausage for himself and an uncooked one, loaded with Trichinella larvae for Bismark. His challenger declined the proposition as too risky.
... and at least the existence of the story is well-cited to an article in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases (Rudolph Virchow, Myron Schulz, Emerg Infect Dis. 2008 September; 14(9): 1480–1481. doi: 10.3201/eid1409.086672).

I'll cut straight to the chase on this one. It needs going back to German primary sources, and Hella Machetanz did exactly that in 1978.
Die tödlichen Trichinen als von Virchow gewählte Waffen sind aber in keiner der zahlreichen deutschen Veröffentlichungen uber dieses Thema zu finden, auch nicht in den Briefen an seine Eltern noch in der Biographie von Ackerknecht. Die Duell-Förderung ist dagegen als gesichert anzusehen, wie aus den Stenographischen Berichten des Preußischen Landtags hervorgeht.

(The deadly Trichinella selected as weapon by Virchow is however to be found in none of the numerous German publications about this topic, nor in the letters to his parents still in the biography by Ackerknecht. The duelling challenge, to the contrary, is deemed to be verified, as appearing in the stenographic records of the Prussian Landtag.)

- Trichinen und die Duell-Forderung Bismarcks an Virchow im Jahre 1865, Hella Machetanz Medizinhistorisches Journal Bd. 13, H. 3/4 (1978), pp. 297-306 Published by: Franz Steiner Verlag
There's an English account of the Landtag dispute between Bismarck and Virchow in the foreign section of the Sydney Morning Herald for August 15th 1865: see the Germany section, columns 3/4, page 3. The duel challenge is there, but no sausages.

As to the English incarnation of the sausage variant, Google Books finds a particular crop of variously embroidered English repetitions of this story in the early 1900s, and tracking a litte back finds the first English citations in American medical journals in 1893. For example:
It is said that Bismarck once sent a challenge to Virchow because of some frank speaking on the part of the great pathologist. The latter instantly remarked that as the challenged party he had the choice of weapons, and held up two sausages apparently exactly alike, saying: "One of these is filled with deadly trichinae, and the other is perfectly healthy. Let Bismarck choose which of these he will eat, and eat it, and I will eat the other." The duel was not fought.
- uncredited anecdote, The American Lancet, p494, Volume 17, 1893
However, it goes back further, and at least one US newspaper carries this version of the story:
A Berlin journal relates that the famous Bismarck once challenged Dr. Virchow for offensive language used in parliamentary debate. The learned doctor was at that time engaged in investigations relating to trichinosis. He is said to have thus replied to the messenger who bore Bismarck’s challenge: “My arms; there they are—those two sausages. One of them is full of trichinae; the other is pure. Let his Excellency breakfast with me. We will eat the sausages; and he shall take his choice of them.
- The Hawaiian Gazette, August 5th, 1868.
A pity we're not told what "Berlin journal" this allegedly came from. The whole anecdote seems to be a cross-fertilisation between the real story of his political conflict with Bismarck leading to a duel challenge, and another real story arising Virchow's activism concerning trichinosis (in particular its association with raw sausages - i.e. not precisely raw, but ones for uncooked consumption made with very lightly cured pork). In Germany in the mid-1800s, this was highly controversial, as Virchow was challenging the safety of a highly-established food industry.

This circumstance seems to be the prototype for the sausage duel story.  The Lancet of February 1866 reports:
At Berlin, a meeting of town-councillors, butchers, doctors, and a sprinkling of the general public, was held shortly before Christmas. Professor Virchow addressed the meeting, and urged the necessity of instituting a microscopical examination of all pork. At the conclusion of his speech, he handed to the president a piece of smoked sausage, and a piece of meat from a pig which had been recognised as tricniuous. Thereupon a veterinary practitioner, of the name of Urban, rose and combated all that science has acquired during the last five years as an unfounded illusion. "Trichinae, he said, "are the most harmless animals in the world. It is only doctors without practice who make a noise about them, in order to create some occupation for themselves," &c. (Great interruption; the president is obliged to stop the veterinarian.) Drs. Virchow and Mason demand an apology from M. Urban. Dr. Mason challenges Urban to eat some of the sausage on the president's table. (Great applause.) Urban wishes to explain. The meeting calls upon him to eat. "He had not spoken of Berlin doctors (' Eat, eat!'); but of those at Hedersleben. ('Eat!') He would first see whether the sausage contained trichinae." (Great laughter, and continued shouts of "Eat! eat! eat!") Whereupon M. Urban suddenly seizes the sausage on the president's table, bites off a piece, eats it, and leaves the ball forthwith, amidst the applause and laughter of the assembly.

About five days later (on 23rd December) the Oelkszeitung [sic] reported that the veterinarian, Urban, was ill. He was confined to his bed, and his arms and legs were paralysed. A hope was expressed that the illness was not caused by trichinae contained in the sausage of which he had been badgered to swallow a piece. Vain hope!
- The Trichina Disease, Dr Thudichum, The Lancet, February 1866, reprinted as pp18-19, The half-yearly abstract of the medical sciences, Volume 43, 1867
This has an urban myth flavour - the poetic justice is just a little too apt. A more reliable summary of events is contained in this dissertation by Lars Harald Feddersen: Die Darstellung Rudolf Virchows in der Vossischen Zeitung im Zeitraum vom 1. Januar 1844 bis zum 31. Dezember 1865 (The Representation of Rudolf Virchow in the "Vossische Zeitung" during the Period of 1st of January 1844 until the 31st of December 1865).

Mr Feddersen's detailed examination of Virchow coverage in the Vossische Zeitung (a prestigious liberal Berlin-published newspaper) confirms that there was a heated meeting at which the veterinary surgeon Urban - a trichina denier - was heckled into eating a suspect sausage. However, there was no report of his subsequently getting ill. The follow-up was that Virchow issued a statement saying the sausage, being four weeks old and heavily smoked, contained only dead trichinae. The newspaper shortly after denied this, saying it was contaminated, but not with trichinae.
Nach diesen Ausführungen sah sich V[irchow] groben Anschuldigungen des ebenfalls anwesenden Tierarztes Dr. Urban ausgesetzt: Dieser warf V neben Oberflächlichkeit und Schwindel vor, er würde die Angst vor den Trichinen schüren. Urban verleugnete, dass eine Trichinenproblematik existierte. Das aufgebrachte Publikum strafte den Tierarzt mit beleidigenden Zwischenrufen.  Dieses veranlasste Urban schließlich, von der mitgebrachten Wurst zu essen. Es kam zum Eklat. V erklärte enttäuscht, dass er die Versammlung nicht ein zweites Mal besuchen wolle. (vgl. VZ 17.12.1865-Nr. 296)

Wenige Tage darauf ging V anlässlich eines Vortrags im „Berliner Handwerkerverein“ erneut auf die Trichinenfrage ein: Er erklärte, dass die Wurst, von der Tierarzt Urban in der „Schlächterversammlung“ gegessen hatte, nur bereits tote Trichinen enthielt. Die Wurst, so V, war bereits vier Wochen alt und stark geräuchert. (vgl. VZ 21.12.1865-Nr. 299)

Zwei Tage später dementierte die VZ diesen Bericht: Die Wurst, von welcher Urban in der Versammlung gegessen hatte, sollte zuverlässigen Meldungen zufolge bei der Untersuchung durch V nun doch nicht trichinös verseucht gewesen sein. (vgl. VZ 23.12.1865-Nr. 301) 
If any fluent German readers can confirm/correct my reading of this, I'd be grateful.


No comments:

Post a Comment