161 – Rome, Italy
‘A body of work consisting 129 volumes. Some of the deductions were wrong’
Born in Pergamum (now Bergama in Turkey) in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (76-138AD)
Studied in Corinth and Alexandria
157 – became surgeon to the Pergamum gladiators
161 – became physician to the emperors Marcus Aurielius and Commodus
Famous for the sheer volume of medical thought which he presented. He summarized his observations in books such as ‘On The Usefulness of Parts of The Body’. His works on medical science became accepted as the only authority on the subject for the following 1400 years. One explanation is that Galen not only incorporated the results of his own findings in his texts, but also compiled the best of all other medical knowledge that had gone before him into a single collection, such as that of Hippocrates.
In particular, Galen adopted Hippocrates’ ‘four humors’ approach to the body. This resulted from a desire to see in bodily conditions the attributes of the four Aristotelian elements. Thus earth was reflected in the body as black bile or melancholy; air as yellow bile or choler; fire as blood and water as phlegm.
After the move to Rome in 161 Galen became physician to emperors Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, Commodus and Septimus Severus. This position allowed him the freedom to undertake dissection in the quest for improved knowledge.
Galen was not permitted to scrutinise human cadavers, so he dissected animals and Barbary apes. His most important conclusions concerned the central operation of the human body. Sadly they were only influential in that they limited the search for accurate information for the next millennia and a half.
Many people visited the shrine of Asklepios, the god of healing in Galen’s hometown, to seek cures for ailments and Galen observed first-hand the symptoms and treatment of diseases. After spells in Smyrna (now Izmir), Corinth and Alexandria studying philosophy and medicine and incorporating work on the dissection of animals, he returned to Pergamum in 157, where he took a position as physician to gladiators, giving him further first-hand experience in practical anatomical medicine. He realized that there were two types of blood flow from wounds. In one the blood was bright red and came spurting out, and in the other it was dark blue and flowed out in a steady stream. These observations convinced him these were two different types of blood. He also believed there was a third form of blood that flowed along nerves.
Galen believed that blood was formulated in the liver, the source of ‘natural spirit’. In turn this organ was nourished by the contents of the stomach that was transported to it. Veins from the liver carried blood to the extremes of the body where it was turned into flesh and used up, thus requiring more food on a daily basis to be converted into blood. Some of this blood passed through the heart’s right ventricle, then seeped through to the left ventricle and mixed with air from the lungs, providing ‘vital spirit’ which then passed into the body through the arteries and regulated the body’s heat. A portion of this blood was transported to the brain where it blended with ‘animal spirit’, which was passed through the body by the nerves. This created movement and the senses. The combination of these three spirits managed the body and contributed to the make-up of the soul. It was not until 1628 that WILLIAM HARVEY‘s system of blood circulation conclusively proved the idea of a single, integrated system.