#8 Claudius Galen – A Physician, a Philosopher who treated Gladiators

To know Galen of Pergamon (129-216 AD), one must visualize. His times. His deeds, His offerings. To medical science.

Galen was born in Pergamon (Bergama) in modern day Turkey to well to do parents. The city boasted a library of more than 200,000 books. Philosophers, scholars and educationists flocked from all over. Attracted to the seat of learning that Pergamon was. And Galen too soaked all the learning that the city had to offer.

A story goes thus that Galen’s father had a dream. To educate his son to be a physician. And so, he did. He learned Medicine at the age of 16 and set out to heal at the age of 20. To Alexandria. Crete. Cyprus and then to Rome. And in this great city of those times when Emperor Marcus Aurelius reigned did Galen of Pergamon flourish with his medical skills.

He treated injured gladiators. In their deep and terrible wounds, he saw “windows to the human body”. And because he excelled over his rivals in treatment, the treated gladiator had an advantage over his opponent in the ring. And with every win came wealth and fame for Galen.

But men were men even then. His peers soon turned envious of his. And they hatched plots. For Galen to leave the city. Galen did. Only to return shortly though on invitation from the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. To serve as Imperial Physician.

Rome at those times was often hot by devastating epidemics. Plague. Smallpox. And Galen treated vigorously. So much so that the disease that struck as epidemic between 165 and 180 AD came to be known as the Antonine Plague after the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius and also as the Plague of Galen after the name of the treating physician. It is believed that Emperor Antonius fell victim one of these very outbreaks in 180 AD.

Galen composed the immense Galenic Corpus. Where he spoke and his disciples wrote. And the manuscripts, volumes of them were stored in rooms, libraries and temples. Particularly in the huge Temple of Peace. Many of these volumes have been lost. Over time. And a large many have been translated particularly by the Islamic scholars of later years in Arabic and Syriac. And then many years later in German, French and Spanish. Major languages of modern-day Europe. And as it happens, there are disputes on how many of these were actually written by Galen.

Galen followed Hippocratic principles of treatment. The theory of the four humors. Blood. Black Bile. Yellow Bile. Phlegm. And Galen linked them further to nature. Blood to Air. Yellow bile to fire. Black bile to earth. Phlegm to water. And while these air, fire, earth and water were the primary features, Galen also described secondary features with hot, cold, wet and dry that caused imbalances through improper mixing that resulted in illness.

Galen was a keen observer of personality traits. Excess of a certain humor led to a certain [personality disposition. Excess blood: active, creative and sociable. Excess yellow bile: passionate; domineering. Excess black bile: melancholic; pensive; quiet. Excess phlegm: calm; composed; lethargic and kind.

A voracious reader of texts, Galen read works of past physicians and philosophers in detail. Not only did he read them, he attempted to segregate the truth from the corrupt translations and added his own commentary. His interpretations. And these ideas ranged from health to hygiene, from diet to exercise and from herbs to surgery.

To Galen is credited much. In Pharmacology, he created the Galenic degree system to study the effects of medicine. He is believed to be the first physician who discovered the route of blood flow arteries. And that urine is formed by the kidneys.

He treated by feeling the pulse. Like a modern physician. One of the firsts perhaps to know that the pulse is an indicator of the body’s condition. And the prolific writer that he was. De Pulsibus. His records of interpretation of pulse readings.

Theriac. The jam made from 64 different kinds of herbs. An ailment for all diseases. An antidote to many poisons. Credited to Galen’s discovery.

And Galen is revered and remembered for his discourse on anatomy and physiology. Those were times when human body dissection was not permitted in Rome. So, Galen dissected animals and observed whatever he could through the “window of wounds” on his patients- the Gladiators. He dissected every possible animal other than human. Dogs, fish, pigs and monkeys.

And from these keen observations he confidently, authoritatively and erroneously drew perhaps the first map of human anatomy.

Let us not remember the great physician Galen for the erroneous map of human anatomy. But as the first pillar of failure on which the success of Cunningham’s Manual of Practical Anatomy and the beautiful illustrations of Grey’s Anatomy were developed many centuries later.

Reference: A Short History of Medicine by Steve Parker; https://www.pastmedicalhistory.co.uk/claudius-galen/; http://www.greekmedicine.net/whos_who/Galen.html; https://in.images.search.yahoo.com/search/images?p=claudius+galen&fr=mcafee&imgurl=https%3A%2F%2Fthehistoryofbyzantium.files.wordpress.com%2F2017%2F07%2Fgalen-fineartamerica-com.jpg#id=371&iurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.researchgate.net%2Fprofile%2FAlberto_Zanatta%2Fpublication%2F268786538%2Ffigure%2Fdownload%2Ffig2%2FAS%3A295493151281180%401447462465958%2FCardiovascular-models-over-the-course-of-time-A-Erasistratus-model-B-Galens-model.png&action=click

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