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Galen the Physician: Biography, Discoveries & Facts

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Plato are some of the most famous ancient Greeks. Another one, Galen, isn't as well-known but actually played a huge role in influencing medical thought for centuries. Find out more about him in this lesson.

Galen

You've almost certainly heard of Aristotle's and Plato's long-lasting influence on early science in general. Well, we can say much the same about another Greek philosopher with his long-lasting impact on early medicine. He is known as Galen or Galen of Pergamum.

Let's learn more about him and his importance in this lesson.

Early Life & Education

Galen was a Greek who was born in Pergamum, a city under Roman control at the time, whose ruins are now in the hands of Turkey. His city had an important shrine to Asclepius, the healing god, one that was visited by important people in order to be cured. In fact, the symbol of medicine features the rod of Asclepius. This is a staff entwined by a serpent.

It's not clear exactly when he was born but it was sometime around 129/130 CE. We do know that Galen was the son of Nikon, a wealthy architect and mathematician in the city, and a man whom Galen respected a lot. Nikon taught his son mathematics from an early age and Galen learned philosophy at various schools as he grew up.

Did you know what you wanted to be when you 'grew up'? Can you recall how you reached that decision? Well, Galen apparently decided to become a physician thanks to a dream, although some think this is an exaggeration. Nonetheless, around age 16, he began to study medicine under the tutelage of Satyrus. Galen was not a prodigy. Such an early age for studying medicine was normal at the time. Eventually, Galen continued his medical studies in Alexandria (Egypt), which was the most important center of medicine at the time and allowed him the opportunity to carefully study human skeletons.

During his studies, he developed a passion for Platonic philosophy and cited Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, as his most important medical role model.

A depiction of what Galen might have looked like.
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Work

Around 157 CE, Galen came back to Pergamum and started to work. He became a sort of military/sports physician for a troop of gladiators. These guys were the sports heroes of the day but also fought with weapons, sometimes to the death.

As important as it was, Pergamum was no match for the capital of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome itself. Ambitious as he was, Galen moved to Rome around 162 CE. Here, he established himself as an important figure. His abilities in anatomy and medicine earned him even more social standing than he was even afforded to by his well-off birth. He was able to cure patients others couldn't. He also had a knack for public debates and philosophy as well. So, he had a pretty good reputation.

But Galen didn't stay in Rome for too long. He left Rome for Pergamum about four years after he had arrived. He claimed that it was because he couldn't stand the bad blood between him and his colleagues. The reality is that he may have recognized there was an impending plague in Rome and left for his own safety.

Of course, he had established a really good reputation as a physician by this time and eventually came back to Rome under the orders of the joint emperors at the time, Lucius Verus, and Marcus Aurelius. He served as their personal physician as well as personal physician to later emperors. Galen died when he was around age 87, sometime around 216/217 CE.

Importance

Galen placed great importance on anatomy as the cornerstone of medical knowledge. He couldn't further his knowledge to the greatest degree for humans, however, as it was a social taboo at the time to dissect humans. So he relied heavily on the dissection and vivisection of animals and, as a result, he sometimes got important things wrong when extrapolating information from non-human species to humans.

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