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Galen's Got Guts


Before we start our post, here is a video about Galen! (Warning: this video has mild gore) [embed][/embed]

Claudius Galen was born in 130 AD in Pergamum, which is known as Turkey today. He was born of Greek blood and, therefore, studied medicine in Greece, Alexandria (Egypt), and other parts of Asia Minor. In 157 AD, he returned to his hometown and became a surgeon for the gladiators. But due to some civil unrest in the hometown, he left for Rome in 162 . Due to his popularity in Rome, he encountered threats and problems from the other physicians and doctors, so he  was forced to leave the city. However, a few years later he was called upon by the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to serve the army. His success took place when he became the emperors and his son’s personal physician during the plague. He continued to be a physician, teach, and write in Rome until his death in 210 AD.

Why is Galen significant?

Galen was considered the greatest physician in the Roman Empire during his life. He was a personal physician for several people, including the emperor and his son, especially after the plague hit. He had written several texts and writings, from during and after his life, on his medical contributions and theories. Galen was very passionate about human anatomy. He performed dissections on animals to understand more about the body and was, therefore, able to make vital discoveries about the human body. From this work, he was able to understand the circulatory system, respiratory system, and other systems in the body. For example, by studying the anatomy of apes, he was able to make an inference that kidneys, not the uterus, produce urine. He also was able to determine the functions of different nerves and muscles. From his numerous experiments, Galen also discovered that arteries carry blood, which challenged the orthodox belief by Hippocratic, another prominent figure in his field, who had stated that arteries had contained air.

As put by Jonathan Wright, “…a man cannot be entirely a physician without being somewhat of a philosopher”. Galen not only studied medicine, but was also well educated in the topic of philosophy and the works of famous philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and physicians such as Hippocrates.

Galen was also very interested in the soul and the interaction between the body and soul. How could have Galen come up with a connection between the soul and body? One important theory that Galen came up with was the concept of pneuma, which he described as the “fundamental principle of life.” It symbolizes air and breath. Pneuma has three forms and purposes: 1. Animal spirit in the brain, that helps with perception and movement. 2. Vital spirit in the heart, which controls blood flow and body temperature, 3. Natural spirit in the liver, for nutrition and metabolism.

Most of Galen's’ work such as the ones above were recorded on manuscripts he wrote during his lifetime. Unfortunately, in 191 AD, a fire at the Temple of Peace  destroyed many of his works, but his remaining works are sufficient enough to prove how significant of a philosopher and physician he had come to be.

Galen’s Gaffe(error)

Just as he was able to point out and improve the mistakes of those before him, he also contributed to new mistakes for those after him. Unfortunately, due to the inability to test his results as human dissection was taboo, his errors were unnoticed and were followed for a long while till someone finally decided and was able to retest his theories.

One such person that challenged Galen’s theories was Vesalius. Vesalius realised the inaccuracies in anatomy from Galen’s teachings and from an actual human body. He realised that many of Galen’s anatomical theories were correct, for apes but not for humans. This was probably due to Galen performing most of his experiments on apes as human dissection was banned in his time. Hence, he transferred the findings he had observed in animals to humans, deeming their anatomies to be similar.

While he was able to prove that arteries contained blood, he had a misconception of how blood flows. He had believed that blood went from one side of the heart to the other by passing through pores in the dividing chamber wall, moving in a to and flow direction from the heart.

While he was able to prove that arteries contained blood, he had a misconception of how blood flows. He had believed that blood went from one side of the heart to the other by passing through pores in the dividing chamber wall, moving in a to and flow direction from the heart.

Galen’s Glory


Unlike many of his colleagues, Galen did not have any students or established any school. Despite that, he was a well-known physician of his time and was highly due to the massive amount of written work he had produced that made him more exceptionally known. His writings were highly regarded by medical schools, and his excerpts were allowed to take up a substantial amount of space in great medical encyclopedias of Oribasius and Aetius of Amida.

Many of his works had been translated into numerous other languages, impacting people with his teachings nations away. Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, an Arab physician, with his followers had managed to translate 129 works of Galen from Greek into Arabic or Syriac. This resulted in the Arabic world being highly influenced and guided by Galen’s teachings about medicine. Al-Kindi has been described as the first of the Muslim philosophers. It has been suggested that Galen’s ideas had some impact on Al-Kindi.

Our thoughts

Galen had proven himself to be a prominent anatomist, physician and philosopher during his lifetime through his work ethics, hands-on dissection, and keen observation. Even though he had made some errors from his work, his contributions regarding medicine and the human anatomy, outweigh his mistakes. The many translations of his works, also aided in his favor, made him significant as his ideas spread far and wide, spreading his influence across the Hellenistic world.