Galen of Pergamum
Leading Physician of Antiquity
He conducted extensive experimental research into the anatomy and physiology of animals and wrote prolifically about his medical methods and beliefs.
Galen was born in 129 to Greek parents living in Pergamum, Asia Minor (now in Western Turkey). Pergamum had a shrine to Asclepius, the god of healing, and Galen was educated at the adjoining medical school. The high priest at Pergamum kept a troop of gladiators, which provided students with the opportunity to examine wounds and observe diseases.
In the 150s, Galen traveled to Smyrna, Corinth, and Alexandria, where he practiced animal dissection and met with numerous physicians. He dissected mostly goats, pigs, and monkeys, and from these he made inferences concerning human anatomy.
In 157, he returned to Pergamum and became the chief physician for the gladiators. The position enabled him to test wound treatments and increase his knowledge of anatomy.
Galen made great leaps in the study of animal biology. He identified cranial nerves, described the valves of the heart, and distinguished structurally between arteries and veins. He experimented on the spinal cord and showed how injury at various levels affects the nervous system. Through vivisection experiments, he demonstrated kidney and bladder functions and showed that the arteries carry blood. He noted the role of the liver in the vascular system and described the structure of bones and muscles. He believed the Hippocratic doctrine stating that health requires a proper balance among the four bodily humors, or bodily fluids: phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, and blood. While this doctrine was later proven incorrect, Galen’s modification of it—in particular, his suggestion that imbalances in the humors can focus on specific organs—permitted more targeted diagnoses and cures.
In 161, Galen relocated to Rome, where he developed a reputation as a successful physician. He held lectures and performed public dissections, awing the Romans and creating envious colleagues. His fame earned him an appointment to the court of Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.
He practiced medicine and wrote books until his death in about 200.
Galen of Pergamum’s Legacy
Galen greatly advanced the understanding of human anatomy and physiology, providing a base for the evolution of modern medicine. His opinions and experimental results dominated medical curricula in Europe for 15 centuries.
Galen’s immediate impact consisted of his physiological experimentation, which was without equal among his contemporaries. He opened new avenues of research and treatment by demonstrating the functions and internal structures of many parts of the body. Because of the fame his experiments brought, his medical theory and practice set the standard for Roman medicine.
Galen’s medical theories were taught at the intellectual centers of Alexandria and Byzantium during the first few centuries of the Christian era. Galen supported many ideas from the Hippocratic tradition, and with his dominance in medical education, Hippocratic dogma traveled forward into modern European thought.
Galen’s legacy survived in the treatises he produced. By the seventh century, Byzantine Christian influence in Persia had assured that many Greek manuscripts remained intact, translated into the Syriac language. This trend continued into the ninth century; when Arab scholars collected and translated Galen’s works. In the following two centuries, Europeans translated Galen into Latin. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as Europeans hosted a revival of Greek and Roman culture and knowledge, industrious physicians attempted to repeat Galen’s experiments and observe his results for themselves.
Galen advocated the erroneous theory of the four bodily humors, derived from the Hippocratic Collection (a compilation of HIPPOCRATES’ teachings), as well as misconceptions of his own, such as his idea that the blood carried pneuma, or life spirit These misconceptions limited medical understanding and practice through the many years of his dominance, and it was not until the 1500s, with the work of such physicians and scientists as ANDREAS VESALIUS and PARACELSUS, that such misconceptions began to be corrected.
Galen of Pergamum – 129-c.200