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Galen Galen

Born: 130 in Pergamon, Asia Minor
Died: 200
Nationality: Greek
Occupation: 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 cultural language.

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 intellectual slave."

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 politics."

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.

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Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD BIOGRAPHY, 2nd ed. 17 vols. Gale Research, 1998. Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.


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