130 in Pergamon, Asia Minor
physician, anatomist, physiologist, philosopher, lexicographer
Galen (130-200), Greek physician, anatomist, physiologist, philosopher, and lexicographer, was probably the most influential physician of all time.
Throughout his life Galen was a prolific writer, producing his first books, THREE COMMENTARIES ON THE SYLLOGISTIC WORKS OF CHRYSIPPUS, at the age of 13 and his last,
INTRODUCTION TO DIALECTICS, in the year of his death. His total output has been estimated at
more than 2 1/2 million words. Those of his writings which survive make up over half the
extant works of ancient medicine.
Various birth dates from 127 to 132 have been suggested, but 130 is generally accepted.
Galen was born at Pergamon, Asia Minor, into a well-to-do family with strong scholarly
traditions and influenced by the renaissance in Greek culture which had started at the
end of the 1st century A.D. This renaissance had led to increasing Hellenization of the
Roman world, the adoption of Greek models of learning, and the use of Greek as the
Galen's father, Nicon, mathematician, architect, astronomer, philosopher, and devotee of
Greek literature, was not only his sole instructor up to the age of 14, but the example of
Stoic virtues on which Galen consciously modeled his own life. In his book ON THE
PASSIONS AND ERRORS OF THE SOUL he says he was "fortunate in having the least irascible, the
most just, the most devoted of fathers," but of his mother he says "she was so very
much prone to anger that sometimes she bit her handmaids; she constantly shrieked at
my father and fought with him." Galen continues, "When I compared my father's noble
deeds with the disgraceful passions of my mother I decided to embrace and love his
deeds and flee and hate her passions." He defined passion as "that unbridled energy
rebellious to reason" and had its control as one of his life's aims. Not surprisingly,
perhaps, he himself remained unmarried.
Philosophical and Medical Training
In his fourteenth year Galen attended lectures given by Stoic, Platonic, Peripatetic, and
Epicurean philosophers from Pergamon. Encouraged by Nicon, he refused to "proclaim
[himself] a member of any of these sects" and said "there was no need for [the
philosophy] teachers to disagree with one another, just as there was no disagreement
among the teachers of geometry and arithmetic." Later in life he adopted the same
attitude to the medical sects, and he urged physicians to take whatever is useful from
wherever they find it and not to follow one sect or one man because that produces "an
Galen relates that Nicon "advised by a dream made me take up medicine together with
philosophy ... if I had not devoted the whole of my life to the practice of medical and
philosophical precepts, I would have learned nothing of importance ... the great majority
of men practicing medicine and philosophy are proficient in neither, for they were not well
born or not instructed in a fitting way or did not persevere in their studies but turned to
Galen, being well born, fittingly instructed, and eschewing politics, persevered with his
studies at Pergamon for the next 4 years, as he puts it, "urging [myself] above [my]
companions to such a degree that I was studying both day and night." His first anatomy
teacher was Satyrus, a pupil of Quintus, who through his students played a major role in
the resurgence of anatomical activity that culminated in Galen's work.
Nicon died in 150 and the following year Galen went to Smyrna. While there he wrote his
first treatise, ON THE MOVEMENTS OF THE HEART AND LUNG. In 152 he went to Corinth and on to
Alexandria, where he remained for 4 years studying with Numisianus, Quintus's most
famous pupil. Although Galen admired Numisianus and "the physicians [who] employ
ocular demonstrations [of human bones] in teaching osteology," he tells us that "in
Alexandria the art of medicine was taught by ignoramuses in a sophistical fashion in
long, illogical lectures to crowds of fourteen-year-old boys who never got near the sick."
He "went away surprised and sorrowful -- sorrowful at [Julian the sectarian methodist's]
lack of sense, and surprised ... there could be sufficient stupid pupils to fill his classes."
To counteract the poor teaching and the misunderstandings of the students, Galen
produced a number of dictionaries, both literary and medical. He also started a major
work, ON DEMONSTRATION. Unfortunately, no copy survives.
Physician to the Gladiators
In 157 Galen returned to Pergamon, where he "had the good fortune to think out and
publicly demonstrate a cure for wounded tendons" which gained him, in 158, the position
of physician to the gladiators. He was reappointed annually until the outbreak of the
Parthian War in 161.
The traumatic injuries of the arena provided Galen with excellent opportunities to extend
his knowledge of anatomy, surgery, and therapeutics, and throughout his life he drew on
this fund of experience to illustrate his arguments. While physician to the gladiators,
whose daily lives can be reconstructed from his writings, Galen produced some of his
most original work, including his demonstration of the part played by the recurrent
laryngeal nerve in controlling the production of the voice. This for him and his
contemporaries had wide implications, since it impinged on their ideas of the soul.
Photo: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.