The Great Sausage Duel of 1865

(Tip o’ the hat to Blake Stacey for first pointing this story out to me!)

The history of science is filled with macabre tales of self-experimentation, amoral experimentation on others, horrific accidents, and even mysterious and sinister disappearances. Perhaps the most unusual tale I’ve come across, however, involves an alleged duel — not with swords or guns, but with sausages.

"Choose your weapon, sir."  German Bratwurste, via Wikipedia.

“Choose your weapon, sir.” German Bratwurste, via Wikipedia.

The opponents in this duel are as incongruous as the choice of weapons.  On one side, we have the formidable Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), the Minister President of Prussia, appointed by and second only to the King himself.  On the other side, we have the energetic, clever and contradictory scientist and politician Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), leader of the Progressive Party in the Prussian legislature (Landtag).

Bismarck as Minister President of Prussia, via Wikipedia.

Bismarck as Minister President of Prussia, via Wikipedia.

Before we describe the duel, let us set the stage.  In 1861, King Frederick William IV died, and his brother took the throne as King Wilhelm.  The new regent almost immediately came into conflict with the very liberal Prussian Diet (deliberative assembly), and the intransigence of both sides lead to a significant budget crisis of the government.  After some resistance, Wilhelm finally agreed in 1862 to appoint Bismarck as Minister President to deal with the assembly.

Bismarck was an obvious choice, as he had already demonstrated himself as a shrewd and bold politician, and one who was loyal to the King.  When a revolution was sparked in Prussia in 1848 and control of Berlin was lost, Bismarck tried to rally the peasants on his estate into an army to come to the King’s aid.  His actions apparently did not go unnoticed as, when the revolution failed within a year, Bismarck was elected to the Landtag.  From there he made friends and enemies and went through a number of different political positions: envoy to the Diet of the German Confederation, member of the Prussian House of Lords, Ambassador to Russia and France.

In his new role, Bismarck clashed regularly with the Prussian Diet.  One of his most vocal opponents was Rudolf Virchow, who had been elected the same year of Bismarck’s appointment — 1862 — and became leader of the Radical, or Progressive, Party.  The fact that the two men were ideologically very different is exemplified in the fact that Virchow was a supporter of the Revolution of 1848, the same revolution that Bismarck tried to strike down.

Rudolf Virchow, via Wikipedia.

Rudolf Virchow, via Wikipedia.

Rudolf Virchow was not only a politician but a scientist, though one who, in hindsight, has a somewhat spotted scientific record*.  He was a pioneer of cell biology, and one of the early proponents of what is known as cell theory.  As a doctor, Virchow made advancements in anatomy, pathology and autopsy processes.  Also, important to our tale, he made a detailed study of the Trichinella parasite in 1865, of which we will say more momentarily.

Virchow also had a number of hugely incorrect beliefs, however.  He rejected the germ theory of disease, believing that diseases come from within cells, not from invading organisms.  He was also vehemently against Darwin’s theory of evolution, even going so far as to give a public address in 1877 blasting Darwin’s ideas, claiming** that it was, in essence, “only a hypothesis.”

Things came to a head between Bismarck and Virchow in 1865, during a debate over funding for the navy.  As described in the 1880 book German Political Leaders***,

It was on the 30th of May, 1865, during that protracted struggle between Bismarck and the House. The estimates for the navy had just been rejected. The Minister President remarked that the denial of any and every allowance for the fleet was in singular contrast to the zeal with which the Liberals had formerly pressed for a strengthening that arm of the service. Professor Virchow replied: “The project was not seriously meant; it was only a feint. But it is a perversion of the truth to say that the committee had no interest in the marine. If the Minister President has read the report, then I do not know what I shall say of his honesty. The truth is that the reserves in the State Treasury are decreasing; that the means of carrying on the government without a budget are growing less, and that it is sought to restore the deficiency by a loan, in order to be able still to sit by warm stoves.” The majority laughed, when Bismarck inquired where matters would end, if insults were uttered which demanded personal satisfaction ; and he added to the House: “There is an opportunity for that, if it be agreeable to you.” Virchow would not retract his words; the President would not call him to order. The next day Bismarck sent Virchow a challenge…

From here, I turn to a slightly later publication from 1893 to describe what happened next.

At the end of a particularly severe attack, Bismarck felt himself personally affronted, and sent seconds to Virchow with a challenge to fight a duel.The man of science was found in his laboratory, hard at work at experiments which had for their object the discovery of a means of destroying trichinæ, which were making great ravages in Germany. “Oh,” said the doctor, “a challenge from Prince Bismarck, eh? Well, well, as I am the challenged party, I suppose I have the choice of weapons. Here they are!” He held up two large sausages, which seemed to be exactly alike. ” One of these sausages,” he said, ” is filled with trichinae—it is deadly. The other is perfectly wholesome. Externally they cannot be told apart. Let His Excellency do me the honor to choose whichever of these he wishes and eat it, and I will eat the other.” Though the proposition was as reasonable as any duelling proposition could be, Prince B.’s representatives refused it. No duel was fought, and no one accused Virchow of cowardice.

A Trichinella larvae, via Wikipedia.

A Trichinella larva, via Wikipedia.

Though you may never have heard of trichinosis by name before, you’ve no doubt been warned about it.  The parasitic disease is caught by eating raw or undercooked pork containing the Trichinella spiralis roundworm.  To quote Wikipedia on the effects of infection,

The first symptoms may appear between 12 hours and two days after ingestion of infected meat. The migration of worms in the intestinal epithelium can cause traumatic damage to the host tissue, and the waste products they excrete can provoke an immunological reaction. The resulting inflammation can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sweating and diarrhea. Five to seven days after the appearance of symptoms, facial edema and fever may occur. After 10 days, intense muscular pain, difficulty breathing, weakening of pulse and blood pressure, heart damage and various nervous disorders may occur, eventually leading to death due to heart failure, respiratory complications or kidney malfunction.

Pretty nasty stuff!  It is no surprise that Bismarck would balk at a duel involving trichinosis.

The story is a nearly perfect one: The rational man of science, Rudolf Virchow, outwits the blustery and powerful former military man****, Otto von Bismarck.  It has been told again and again, and even appeared in the 1971 book Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor.

The only problem?  It seems likely that the story isn’t true!

Let me continue the description of the fight between Bismarck and Virchow from German Political Leaders:

The next day Bismarck sent Virchow a challenge, which, of course, was not accepted. The political friends of the professor counseled him to decline, and he received many addresses of approval from the country. This incident caused a great sensation at the time, but it was nearly forgotten by the present generation, when it was cited, not long ago, in a singular way, in court. A gentleman was on trial for sending a challenge—a species of pleasure that the German laws have long denied, except to the military— and, in mitigation of sentence, the defendant referred to the case of Bismarck versus Virchow, and observed that Bismarck had never been prosecuted for his challenge. The judge replied that he was not prosecuted because he was protected by the military uniform which, as an officer in the Landwehr, he is accustomed and entitled to wear.

The story of the duel is very different, and quite mundane, in this account.  In fact, I can find no description***** of the “sausage duel” before 1893, where it pops up in multiple publications.

The timing of the story appearing is itself perhaps significant, as it was only 3 years earlier that Bismarck was forced to resign his dual positions of Chancellor of Germany and Minister-President of Prussia.  With the former political power in retirement, there was little risk of him stepping forward to refute false stories.

The most damning evidence comes from Bismarck’s own correspondence¹, however.  For instance, we have the original letter of challenge from Bismarck to Virchow:

Berlin, June 8, ’65.

During the sitting on the 2nd inst. you personally insulted me by casting doubt upon my veracity. On the following day I requested you, through Herr v. Puttkamer, to grant me the satisfaction to which I consider myself entitled. Your reply led me to hope that you would settle the matter with an apology, but the negotiations which have been interrupted by your absence have not produced this result.

I am, therefore, compelled to repeat my demand for satisfaction made on the 3rd inst., and to ask you to state if you are ready to comply with my demand made to you through Herr v. Puttkamer. In this case I beg you to name one of your friends to make further arrangements respecting place and time with the Minister for War, who will be kind enough to act as my witness.

Awaiting your kind reply, I am,

Your obedient servant,


Virchow was not particularly eager to engage in a duel, as the Minister for War reported that same day:

Berlin, June 8, ’65.

Dear B.,

I have just been to Virchow’s and found that he had gone out at 7 o’clock. I am now going to the Chamber, where, if possible, I will execute my commission. All things considered, it seems to me that you can hardly settle the business in question in time to leave for Stralsund this evening. I will do my best, however. Your

v. Roon.

Still that same day, it seems that members of the assembly decided that duels were out-dated and not something that members of the government should be engaged in, as v. Roon reported to Bismarck:

Berlin, June 8, ’65.

The President [of the House of Deputies] has declared, on the motion of Forckenbeck, that Virchow may not fight, and that it is for the House alone to decide whether a Minister is insulted. I replied: “A man is the guardian of his own honour.”

The discussion on the subject has been going on for three quarters of an hour. At the present moment the lion of the tribe of Judah is roaring. The shorthand report shall be sent to you as soon as possible.

v. Roon.

My letter to Virchow cannot be delivered, as he has not returned home. I enclose it herewith.

Still the same day, Virchow seems to have backed down himself from his own statements, as his own associate relayed to one of Bismarck’s colleagues:

Berlin, June 8, ’65.

I have received no further intelligence as to whether you consider that there is no longer a prospect of the difference between Herr v. Bismarckand Prof. Virchow being adjusted.

Prof. Virchow wishes to end the matter and has charged me to inform you that he considers that he has done everything possible on his part towards a settlement in expressing his readiness to make the statement desired by Bismarck on one condition, at which no offence can be taken. As no reply has as yet been received to this I am further charged to inform you that Prof. Virchow decidedly declines to fight a duel, the more so as the affair has been made public through no fault of his, and has even been discussed to-day in the Chamber of Deputies. His political friends, and also the President of the House, have imposed on him as a duty the non-acceptance of the duel.

Kindly acquaint Herr von Bismarck with this, and at the same time inform him that Prof. Virchow is ready to make the promised statement in the House, with the condition formulated by me; I would add explicitly that only the sense and not the wording of the latter is of moment to him.

Respectfully yours,


Finally, Virchow himself wrote to Bismarck to end the affair:

(Undated.—Postmark², July 8, ’65, 9 A. M.)

Your Excellency,

I beg to reply to your favour of to-day’s date that Herr v. Hennig has to-day informed Herr v. Keudell in my name:

1, that I decline the duel.

2, that I am ready to make the statement in the House desired by the Minister-President as soon as I receive the Minister-President’s assurance that there was no personal insult intended to the members of the committee in his remarks on Hannibal Fischer.

As I have gone to the utmost bounds of possibility in making this concession, I should be glad if any further negotiations respecting the wording of the statement might be conducted, as heretofore, through the medium of Herr v. Hennig.

Accept the assurance of my highest esteem, with which 1 subscribe myself

Your Excellency’s most respectful

R. Virchow. Member of the House of Deputies.

So where does this leave us?  It looks like the story of the sausages is made up, as it only becomes widely reported some 30 years after it allegedly occurred.  Earlier accounts of the duel do not mention the sausages at all, and Bismarck’s correspondence tells a different story.  It seems like a story that was created some time later to tell a story of a scientific underdog outwitting a bully of a soldier.

I almost prefer the true story, however: Virchow refused to play Bismarck’s savage game, even with a new set of rules (and sausages).  He does not seem to have lost his reputation in the matter, and may have even gained esteem in the process.

There is a punchline to this tale.  Where would such a bizarre tale come from in the first place?  The 1893 version of the tale I quoted came from volume 22 of Homœopathic News: A Monthly Homœopathic Medical Journal!  I can’t think of a more amusing end to this post than the thought that a fraudulent medical science promoted a fictitious historical account.



* Tip o’ the hat to PZ Myers for drawing my attention to Virchow’s mixed achievements.

** At least back Virchow knew the difference between a theory and a hypothesis.

*** H. Tuttle, German Political Leaders (Putnam, 1880), 223.

**** Point of note: Bismarck was in the army but never served in a combat situation.

***** I have found no description of the sausage duel before 1893 written in English, though there may be earlier descriptions in German.  Still investigating…

¹ The Correspondence of William I. & Bismarck: With Other Letters from and to Prince Bismarck, Volume 2 (F.A. Stokes Company, 1903).

² I believe this postmark is a typo in the collected correspondence, as the letter is placed right in the June 8 series.


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12 Responses to The Great Sausage Duel of 1865

  1. SG Jones says:

    This is FANTASTIC thank you! The only thing that would make it better is if you would hyperlink those asides so i’m not scrolling my limited brains out 😀

  2. Mala Burt says:

    My father was a biologist and we grew up knowing about trichinosis. Every pork chop in our house was cooked to death. Now I see cooking channel chefs recommending pale pink inside their pork tenderloins. Is trichinosis no longer a concern here (or perhaps until our pork comes from China)?

    • That’s a good question, and I’m not sure of the answer! According to Wikipedia, though, it looks like “hygienic pig farming” gets rid of most of the risk of parasitic infection.

      • Uisghea says:

        My understanding is that, after Sinclair Lewis scandalized the industry with “The Jungle,” the pork industry cleaned up its act and there hasn’t been a documented case of trichinosis in this country since the Great Depression.

        A friend of mine is a chef in Maryland. Thanks to him, it’s now legal to serve medium-rare pork in that state. Perfectly safe–now, though certainly not a hundred years ago.

  3. Andy Extance says:

    Given the story’s apocryphal anyway, I think we can improve it by saying that Bismarck turned around to Virchow and said: “OK then, give me your wurst!”

  4. Le Chifforobe says:

    This is a great story–thanks!! It doesn’t matter at all that the tale is not entirely true.

    Why? Because History is written by the wieners.

  5. ad84 says:

    “Tip o’ the hat to PZ Myers for drawing my attention to Virchow’s mixed achievements.”

    What did Virchow do, crack a joke about women?

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