Galen Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)
0111200216-Galen.jpg Galen (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Roman physician{$I[g]Roman Empire;Galen}{$I[g]Asia Minor;Galen} Although not a first-rate philosopher, Galen was influential in formulating a powerful logical empiricism that took scientific axioms as self-evident rather than hypothetical. His greatest contribution was in medicine, where he made the best presentation of anatomical knowledge in the ancient world; his theories and practices remained dominant during the Middle Ages.

Early Life

Galen (GAH-luhn) was born on an estate in Pergamum (also known as Pergamon), a city situated on the mainland almost opposite the island of Lesbos in Asia Minor. Pergamum lay inland in a fertile valley, and its hilltops were crowned by temples and theaters. Pergamum’s library rivaled Alexandria’s. Another distinguishing feature was the Asclepieion, or medical temple dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing. This was a combination religious sanctuary, sanatorium, and place of recreation. Pergamum was one of the great seats of Christianity and held one of the seven churches mentioned by John the Apostle in the Revelations (2:12-17). Because of these features, the city became one of the great pilgrimage and entertainment centers in the Roman world, and Galen grew up exposed not only to scholars but also to rhapsodists, musicians, tumblers, actors, and snake-charmers.

Galen’s father, Nicon, was an architect and geometer. He was also a prosperous landowner with a farm that cultivated peas, beans, lentils, almonds, figs, olives, and grapes. Nicon himself came from a highly educated family and was able to provide his son with an education partly in the country and partly in the city. Galen (whose name derives from galenos, Greek for “calm” or “serene”) was closer to his father than to his mother, who scolded the maids and quarreled almost incessantly with her husband. Galen compared her with Socrates’ difficult wife, Xanthippe, but was able to keep his distance from her by accompanying his father to lectures in the city. His father provided or supervised Galen’s education until the boy reached fourteen, then directed his son to philosophical studies.

There were four leading philosophical systems at the time—Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism—and Galen was not prodded along any single path of knowledge. He had the benefit of a liberal education, although he found confusion in philosophy and had doubts about mathematics. His father wanted a state career for the boy, but after having a dream in which Asclepius directed attention to medicine, Nicon sent Galen, then seventeen, to study under the celebrated anatomist and Sophist Satyros.

Life’s Work

When Nicon died, probably in 151, Galen worked with Pelops in Smyrna and with Numisianos in Corinth and Alexandria, where he wrote a treatise in three parts on the movement of the lungs and thorax. He remained in Alexandria for roughly five years, traveling in various parts of Egypt. There were six main medical sects at the time, three ancient (the Hippocratic, Dogmatic, and Empirical) and three “modern” (the Methodist, Pneumatic, and Eclectic). Galen, like many of his colleagues, was free to try combinations of these sects, and he devoted two treatises to the discussion of them.

On his return to Pergamum, he was appointed physician to the school of gladiators by the head priest of the Asclepieion. Galen’s appointment lasted more than two years and was a useful experience. Because gladiators often received severe wounds, a physician was obliged to attend to the diet, exercise, and convalescence of these combatants in order to ensure that they were in good health and that they would recover in due course from certain injuries. Galen did not perform much surgery on the gladiators, and his knowledge of anatomy was derived exclusively from dissections on animals—particularly the Barbary ape (for which he was nicknamed the “ape doctor”). Slaves or students would prepare the cadavers of pigs, sheep, oxen, cats, dogs, horses, lions, wolves, birds, and fish by shaving and flaying them, and it is a wonder that Galen and other anatomists were not killed by infection.

Dissection led to insights about the general plan of the body, and Galen showed that this plan was essentially the same from creature to creature. He discovered that arteries contain blood and that a severed artery (even a small one) could drain all the body’s blood in one-half hour or less. He showed that the right auricle outlives the rest of the heart and that there is a link between the brain and the larynx.

When a new war between the Pergamumites and the neighboring Galatians began, Galen left for Rome. His life and career coincided with the noble rule of Antoninus Pius and that of his son, Marcus Aurelius. Galen rented a large house, practiced as a physician, attended medical meetings in the temple of peace, and continued his interest in philosophy.

He respected the ancients, particularly Aristotle, Plato, and Hippocrates. He argued that all scientific knowledge begins with the senses, or mind, and he was opposed to the Skeptics, who taught their disciples to argue on either side of any point. Galen found it absurd to argue so freely while doubting, as the Skeptics did, the starting points of knowledge. Although somewhat “magical” or irrational in medical practice (he believed in the therapeutic value of excrement and amulets), he was a rationalist in his philosophical method, recognizing a role for syllogistic reasoning and admiring the purposiveness of all nature. He...

(The entire section is 2302 words.)