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Antiquity Doctor of the Week

Chatting with Galen of Pergamon

You voted for Galen of Pergamon and so he is the first within the series “Doctor of the Week”.

The “Interview”

How was your youth?

I was born in 129 AD into a wealthy family in Pergamon, part of the Roman Empire. My father, Aelius Nicon, was very supportive and offered me the best available education: As Pergamon was a cultural and intellectual center with one of the most famous libraries, I had access to the theories of famous thinkers.
My father wanted me to become a philosopher or politician. My interest on philosophy remained for my whole life. Till my father´s dream changes everything.

Pergamon´s Asclepieum

Fun fact …
Galen’s name comes from the Greek adjective for “calm”.

What happened in that dream?

The god of medicine, Asclepius, appeared in my father´s dream and told him that I shall become a physician.
So at the age of 16, my father send me to the Asclepieum, the local sanctuary, where I spent 4 years and could learn from the best scholars of my time.

What did you do after your education was finished?

After my father´s death in 148, I was 19 years old wealthy and independent. I decided to travel the world and study at different locations including Smyrna, Corinth, Crete, Cilicia, Cyprus and finally at the famous medical school of Alexandria. So I got exposed to different thoughts of medicine.

How did your career continue?

When I was 28, in 157, I returned to Pergamon. There I became a physician to the gladiators of the High Priest of Asia, one of the most powerful and wealthy men in Asia. In my 4 years stay I learnt how important diet, fitness, hygiene, and preventive treatment were. Furthermore, I got an insight into anatomy and how to treat fractures, trauma, and severe wounds. Only 5 gladiators died while I was a physician there. I do not want to show off but during my predecessor´s time 60 died.

What happened next?

In 162, I went to Rome, the capital of the Empire: In Rome I showed my skills and that I was better than other doctors, which led to many animosities and finally I left Rome.

In 169 the Antonine Plague broke out and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius himself summoned me back to Rome, where I became the court physician for Aurelius and his co-emperor Lucius Verus. In that position I travelled with them to Germany. A year later I was dismissed by Aurelius, who believed that Asclepius did not approve me. So I became the physician to the imperial heir Commodus and wrote a lot on medical issues.

I stayed the physician of Commodus for much of his life and became the physician of Septimius Severus, while he stayed in Rome.

Can you explain your role during The Antonine Plague in more detail?

I was in Rome when it first broke out in 166 AD and in Aquileia in 168-69 AD, when it infected the troops within the military camp. I described the plague and its treatment briefly.

Did you know…
that the Antonine Plague had a mortality rate of 7-10% and killed approximately 3.5-5 million from 165-168 AD. It is hard to say which disease the Antonine Plague really was.

As my teacher, the philosopher Eudemus, suffered from malaria I treated him and got in conflict with some Roman physicians as I broke with the standard of care.

Galen´s Contributions to medicine

Galen built his theories on Hippocrates of Kos´s humorism, which claims that the human body consists out of 4 fluids: blood, yellow & black bile and phlegma. If the fluids are in balance the patient is health and if an inbalance happens he/she turns ill. He promoted humorism, especially its relation to people´s character, and by then in Rome unknown methods of Hippocratic teaching, such as venesection and bloodletting.

Galen was very interested in anatomy – especially the nervous, respiratory and circulatory system – but could not dissect human cadavers as Roman law had prohibited it about 150 BC. So Galen performed his anatomy studies on living and dead animals, especially monkeys and pigs, as he thought their anatomy to be similar to that of humans. His findings stayed mostly unchallenged until the 16th century.

Galen was a skilled surgeon, which is due to his experience as doctor, and this skills helped him also in his research.

Galen was a highly active and rhetorically skilled author on medicine and philosophy – he wrote in Greek – but unfortunately many of his works got destroyed by a fire in the Temple of Peace in 191 AD

Galen´s Legacy

Monument of Galen in his hometown Pergamon

Along with Hippocrates of Kos, Galen shaped what is understood as Ancient Greek medicine. In some areas the arising Galenism was that strong that even Hippocrates was seen through a Galenic perspective.

With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire he and other Greek works disappeared in the Latin West but continued their influence in the Empire´s Western part and the Islamic Middle East from the 8th century onwards: al-Razi and Ibn Sina worked with and challenged Galen´s works. Especially his experimentation and empiric approach was appreciated.

Galen re-entered the Western European sphere via the Latin translation of the Islamic texts, from the 11th century onwards. In the late Middle Ages he entered the curriculum at universities in Naples and Montpellier.

During the Renaissance his works were challenged e.g. by Paracelsus, who symbolically burned the works of Ibn Sina and Galen at his medical school in Basle. Finally the anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius in “De humani corporis fabrica” proved that Galen´s findings were correct for monkeys but not for humans. Vesalius came to that conclusion be doing dissections – not of animals but on humans.

Even though (some) theories of Galen are outdated from a today´s perspective he stays one of the major authorities within the history of Western medicine.

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