Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.
Galen lived in the 2nd century AD, from 131 until his death around 70 years later. He was a student at the famous library of Alexandria (later sacked in an appalling act of vandalism by Christian crusaders) and rose to become the most respected physician of the Roman world. He was the personal physician of three Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and Septimius Severus.
In his early thirties Galen took a prestigious post as chief physician to the gladiator school in Pergamum where his duties included not only general medical care but also the treatment of wounds inflicted in the arena, an experience that would serve him well throughout his career.
As we have seen history is full of claimants for the position of originator of the experimental method including those dating back as far as the ancient Egyptian physician, Imhotep and Galen is no exception. He was not the first to be credited with this momentous development and he will not be the last either. He was perhaps one of the most influential though. Galen’s theories and assumption survived him by around 1,500 years which should certainly give us pause for thought. Originator of scientific method or not, Galen was certainly a significant step along the way.
Galen correctly identified the role of the arteries in transporting blood, the kidneys as the site of urine formation and wrote a staggeringly large number of books and papers based upon his observations from dissection. So important were Galen’s observations that his work wasn’t really overturned until the Renaissance.
It is unfortunate perhaps that Galen was so ready to accept the assumptions of earlier physicians like Hippocrates and Celcus. He particularly admired the principle that nature must be allowed to run its course and like Hippocrates, Galen may well have been far too non-interventionist when it came to aggressive illnesses. Having said that, in the absence of modern treatments like antibiotics it seems that Galen and his contemporaries would have had few options in that regard anyway.
Galen endorsed the notion of the four humours which had dominated medicine for centuries already and it is due to ancient physicians like him that so many sick people were further weakened and no doubt killed in many cases by practices such as blood-letting to rebalance the humours in sick bodies. In truth the practice would serve only to inhibit the body’s own ability to fight off infection and to continue normal processes of life.
For all his methodological advances, Galen certainly didn’t get everything right.
I’m loathe to be too hard on this ancient physician though. He was a prisoner of his time, as are we all, and given the knowledge and tools at his disposal he did the best he could with what he had. Once again – just like us all. Like so many of the pioneers we’ll meet in this series, Galen was a man who made mistakes but who ultimately provided us with a step or two on the way to greater understanding as well.
You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.