161 – Rome, Italy

Bust of GALEN


‘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.

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IBN SINA (AVICENNA) (980-1037)

‘al Qann fi al-Tibb’ (The Canon of Medicine), also ‘ The Book of the Remedy

Avicenna lived under the Sammarid caliphs in Bukhara. He identified different forms of energy – heat, light and mechanical – and the idea of a force.

drawing of Ibn Sina ©


Before GALEN, scientists describing nature followed the old Greek traditions of giving the definitions and following them up with the body of logical development. The investigator was then obliged merely to define the various types of ‘nature’ to be found. With Galen this procedure was changed.

Instead of hunting for these natures and defining more and more of them, reproducing ARISTOTLE’s ideas, AVICENNA, a Persian physician, planned inductive and deductive experimental approaches to determine the conditions producing observable results.

His tome surveyed the entire field of medical knowledge from ancient times up to the most up to date Muslim techniques. Avicenna was the first to note that tuberculosis is contagious; that diseases can spread through soil and water and that a person’s emotions can affect their state of physical health. He was the first to describe meningitis and realize that nerves transmit pain. The book also contained a description of 760 drugs. Its comprehensive and systematic approach meant that once it was translated into Latin in the twelfth century it became the standard medical textbook in Europe for the next 600 years.

Arabic Canon of Medicine by Avicenna 1632. Many physicians in the Islamic world were outstanding medical teachers and practitioners. Avicenna (980-1037 CE) was born near Bokhara in Central Asia. Known as the 'Prince of Physicians', his Canon of Medicine (medical encyclopedia) remained the standard text in both the East and West until the 16th century and still forms the basis of Unani theory and practice today. Divided into five books, this opening shows the start of the third book depicting diseases of the brain.

Arabic Canon of Medicine by Avicenna 1632

Avicenna thought of light as being made up of a stream of particles, produced in the Sun and in flames on Earth, which travel in straight lines and bounce off objects that they strike.

A pinhole in a curtain in a darkened room causes an inverted image to be projected, upside-down, onto a wall opposite the curtained window. The key point is that light travels in straight lines. A straight line from the top of a tree some distance away, in a garden that the window of the camera obscura faces onto – passing through the hole in the curtain – will carry on down to a point near the ground on the wall opposite. A straight line from the base of the tree will go upwards through the hole to strike the wall opposite near the ceiling. Straight lines from every other point on the tree will go through the hole to strike the wall in correspondingly determined spots, the result is an upside-down image of the tree (and of everything else in the garden).

He realized that refraction is a result of light traveling at different speeds in water and in air.

He used several logical arguments to support his contention that sight is not a result of some inner light reaching outward from the eye to probe the world around it, but is solely a result of light entering the eye from the world outside – realizing that ‘after-images’ caused by a bright light will persist when the eyes are closed and reasoning that this can only be the result of something from outside affecting the eyes. By effectively reversing the extro-missive theory of Euclid, he formulated the idea of a cone emanating from outside the eye entering and thus forming an image inside the eye – he thus introduced the modern idea of the ray of light.

The idea which was to have the most profound effect on the scientific development of an understanding of the behaviour of light was the thought of the way images are formed on a sunny day by the ‘camera obscura’.

AL HAZEN (c.965-1039)

Born in Basra and working in Egypt under al-Hakim, Abu Ali al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham was one of the three greatest scientists of Islam (along with al-Biruni and ibn-Sina). He explained how vision works in terms of geometric optics and had a huge influence on Western science. He is regarded as one of the earliest advocates of the scientific method.

The mathematical technique of ‘casting out of nines’, used to verify squares and cubes, is attributed to al-Hazen.

Al-Hazen dissented with the J’bir Ayam hypothesis of transmutation, thus providing two different strands for Alchemy in Europe from the Islāmic world.

diagram explaining the working of the eye

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1543 – Padua, Italy

‘In spite of his premature death, Vesalius left behind a revolutionary legacy to anatomy students’

Portrait of Vesalius &copy:


By his reasoned, critical approach to GALEN he broke the reverence ascribed to the former master and created a model for independent, rational investigation in the development of medical science.


In 1543, Vesalius published ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem‘ (The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body). Book One reveals Vesalius’s understanding of the importance of the skeleton. Book Two is about muscles; Book Three – Veins and Arteries; Book Four – The Nervous System. Book Five concerns the Main Body Organs; Book Six – The Heart & Lungs; Book Seven – The Brain.


At 42cm tall and 28cm wide with over 700 densely packed pages, it was impressive in size alone. It contained 200 illustrations, was the first definitive work on human anatomy actually based on the results of methodical dissections of humans and was the most accurate work on the subject ever written. Galen himself had never dissected a human body as this had been forbidden by Roman religious laws.

Anatomical Study Illustration from De Humani Corporis Fabrica 1543Anatomical Study Illustration from De Humani Corporis Fabrica 1543

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1929 – England

‘First identification of an antibiotic – the discovery of penicillin’

The chance discovery of a mould in 1928 led to the development of a non-toxic drug, which is used to combat the bacteria that infect wounds.

Whilst Paul Erlich (1854-1915) worked in Germany to produce a ‘magic-bullet’, a compound or dye that could stick to bacteria and damage them, Alexander Fleming’s chance discovery of the antibacterial properties of the mould Penicillium notatum led him to conclude there was a chemical produced by the mould that would attack the bacterial agents of disease.

Whilst searching for a naturally occurring bacteria-killer, Fleming’s experiments were concentrated on the body’s own sources, tears, saliva and nasal mucus.

The chance discovery of the anti-bacterial properties of Penicillium notatum was not developed commercially until World War Two over a decade later.

picture of the Nobel medal - link to




HIPPOCRATES of COS (c.470 – c.410 BCE)

Fifth/Fourth Century BCE – Greece

‘About 60 medical writings, known collectively as the Hippocratic corpus’

Before the time of Hippocrates there had been little science in medicine. Disease was believed to be the punishment of the gods. Divine intervention came not from the natural, but from the supernatural.

‘Treatment’, therefore, came also from the supernatural, through magic, witchcraft, superstition or religious ritual. Hippocrates’ approach was remarkable given the age in which he lived. ‘There are in fact two things,’ said Hippocrates, ‘science and opinion’; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.’

Although little is known about him, Hippocrates (Bukarat in the Muslim world) is now remembered as the Father of Medicine. He was a contemporary of Socrates and lived on the island of Cos. It is widely acknowledged that Hippocrates himself could not have written many of the texts attributed to him. Written over a century and varying widely in style and argument, it is thought they came from the medical school library of Cos, possibly put together in the first instance by the author to whom they later became attributed.

The corpus is the oldest surviving Western scientific text. It laid the foundations of the western medical tradition. Although its remedies are now considered ‘imaginative’, the corpus speaks the language of science; it does not speak of spells, daemons or gods.

Hippocrates cast aside superstition and focused on the natural, in particular observing, recording and analysing the symptoms and passages of disease. The prognosis of an illness was central to this approach to medicine, partly with a view to being able to avoid in the future the circumstances that were perceived to have initiated the problems in the first place. The development of far-fetched cures or drugs was not important. What came from nature should be cured by nature; therefore rest, healthy diet, exercise, hygiene and air were prescribed for the treatment and prevention of illness. [Vis medicatrix naturae – the healing power of nature]. The fact that Hippocrates was prescribing such a natural solution at all was a major advancement.

Bust said to be of HIPPOCRATES ©


Hippocratic medicine was based on the balance of four elements – water (cold and moist), air (moist and hot), fire (hot and dry) and earth (cold and dry) – and four humors (bodily fluids) – phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile.

Whereas homeopathy attempts to treat disease by inducing in the patient symptoms similar to those displayed, according to the theory that symptoms are a manifestation of the body’s way of coping with the disease, allopathy describes a therapeutic technique that attempts a cure by inducing in the patient different symptoms. Basing treatment on symptoms, not causes, this enantiopathic technique can be fatal when applied to a system based on the humors. A person suffering from influenza is hot and thirsty (dry), so treatment with a mixture of cold and wet could result in a patient sitting a bath of cold water in a draughty room, awaiting a cure.

Personality or temperament was viewed as having four major types – sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic.

Hippocrates regarded the body as a single entity, or whole, and the key lay in preserving the natural balance within this entity. Sickness was the sign of imbalance. When each of the factors was present in equal quantities, a healthy body would result. If one element became too dominant, then illness or disease would take over. If, for example, the sickness consisted of an excess of cold, moist humors, then the task of the physician was to restore the balance. The way to treat the problem would be by trying to undertake activities or eat foods which would stimulate the other humors, while at the same time trying to restrain the dominant one, in order to restore the balance and consequently, health.

The concept and treatment of humors endured for the next two thousand years, at least as far as the seventeenth century. The answers he prescribed for healthy living such as diet and exercise are still ‘good medicine’ and moreover, language introduced by Hippocrates still endures; an excess of black bile in Greek was ‘melancholic’, whilst someone with a too dominant phlegm humor became ‘phlegmatic’.

Physicians no longer practice Hippocratic medicine, but his name survives in the Hippocratic Oath that medical students take today. The Oath, probably penned by one of his followers, is a short passage constituting a code of conduct to which henceforth all physicians were obliged to pledge themselves. It outlines, amongst other things, the ethical responsibilities of the doctor to his patients and a commitment to patient confidentiality – an attempt to set physicians in the Hippocratic tradition apart from the spiritual and superstitious healers of their day.

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IMHOTEP (c.2650 BC)

Photograph of King Huni pyramid at Maydoum the 3rd dynasty Old Kingdom at Elfayom (427 x 500) ©

‘Architect of civilisation’

Medical sage, astronomer, mathematician, architect.

Architect of the first pyramid built during the reign of the second pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Came to be revered as a god of healing and identified by the Greeks with their own Aesculapius.