Galen: The Greek physician who extensively studied the Antonine Plague

Aelius Galenus (aka Galen or Galen of Pergamon): Life, Medical Research and Achievements

Known simply as Galen, Aelius Galenus was a Greek physician who etched his name in the history books as one of the most accomplished physicians of the Roman Empire. Aside from his stellar contributions to medicine, Galen was also responsible for numerous advances in the fields of physiology, anatomy and pharmacology.

Questions about Galen?

Here we present everything that you need to know about life and major achievements of Galen.

The life of young Galenus

Galen was fortunate to be born in the city of Pergamon on the Aegean coast to an affluent home in AD 129. The physician was predominantly raised by his father, Aelius Nicon who was a very rich and respected architect.

Philosophy and politics were the highest regarded fields of study in ancient Greece, and it was what Galen’s father had planned for him to study. However, he had a dream about his 15-year-old son in AD 144 and everything changed. It is said that Nicon had a dream in which Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, advised him to let his son pursue a career in medicine. Following this vision, plans were made for Galen to study medicine in Pergamon’s Asclepieum (Asclepeion) when he turned 16. The Asclepeion (or Asclepieia) was a healing temple dedicated to Asclepius.

Did you know?

Galen and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius both had their medical training at Asclepeion, a temple devoted to the Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.

Galen’s medical journey

For four intensive years, Galen spent his medical education under the tutelage of many notable physicians such as Aeschrion of Pergamon, Stratonicus, and Satyrus at the Asclepieum.

After Nicon’s passing in 148 AD, Galen inherited a large fortune but had little ties to the city of Pergamon. Having gained his freedom from the burden of expectation from his father, he planned to use the next phase of his life to see the world and expand his medical expertise.

From Smyrna, he went to Crete, Corinth, Cyprus, and eventually the famed medical school in Alexandria, Egypt. In Alexandria, which was at the time was under the control of the Roman Empire, Galen got the chance to bask in the massive halls of the famous Library of Alexandria.

In the nine years that followed, he acquired a medical education that was both comprehensive and unique in its teachings. In AD 157, he went back to Pergamon and began working as the High Priest of Asia’s personal medic and surgeon for the gladiators.

READ MORE: Roman Gladiators – History, Major Facts, & Most Famous Ones

His work on anatomy

To better understand anatomy, Galen took to dissecting monkeys and other animals. Portrait by Galician-born Portuguese artist Veloso Salgado in 1906

Galen gained valuable knowledge in anatomy and trauma from his time spent working with the gladiators. He supposedly got the job when the High Priest dismembered an ape and dared the doctors to restore it. After they declined, Galen attempted the operation on his own, and with tremendous success, he earned himself lofty praise from the high priest.

He got quite seasoned in the art of healing combat wounds and was also able to gather knowledge of practical human anatomy in a time when human dissection was severely prohibited. Wounds sustained by a gladiator were like “windows into the body,” since that was his only chance of witnessing the insides of a human. He later became an anatomical expert after dissecting apes and monkeys to expand his expertise.

His tenure as the appointed medic for the gladiators ended with only five deaths, an impressively low figure, considering that his predecessor saw double of those numbers. The manner in which he went about treating the wounds is what ultimately led to the loss of less lives.

Galen and the Antonine Plague

Galen moved to Rome when he was 32 years old (AD 161) and stayed there for the remainder of his life. His public lectures and anatomical demonstrations in Rome attracted the attention of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Later, Galen served as Marcus Aurelius’ personal physician during his campaigns against the barbarian invaders who terrorized the Daubian border.

Galen was in Rome at the time of the first outbreak of the Antonine Plague, which lasted from 165-189 CE. It is believed that Marcus Aurelius’ surname, Antoninus, inspired the plague’s name. However, in recognition of Galen’s contribution to understanding the disease, the plague was also called, “Plague of Galen”. The mortality rate of the plague was as high as 10 percent and caused over 3 million deaths from 165 to 168.

Galen contributed to the treatment of persons who were struck by the disease and offered comfort to them. Many historians finally came to the conclusion that it was a smallpox epidemic after reading Galen’s account of the disease and the research he conducted. According to Galen, the infected person exhibited symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and headache, among others.

READ MORE: 10 Most Devastating Pandemics of All Time

Galen’s Contribution to Medicine

In pharmacology, he developed the Galenic degree system, which is widely regarded as the first genuine attempt at quantifying the therapeutic efficacy of drugs. Thus, the physician claimed recognition as one of the earliest clinical researchers.

He was the first to attribute urine production to the kidneys, one of the first clinicians to understand the significance of the pulse, and the first physician to use the strength of a pulse to signify a sign of an incubating disease.

Galen also discovered that the heart has four valves and they allow blood to flow in only one direction. He also Identified 7 of the 12 cranial nerves, such as the optic nerve and acoustic nerve. The physician claimed that there were two kinds of blood, which were black and red.

Aside from the successful removal of cataract from the eyes of a patient, Galen was also credited with the promotion of the theory of human temperaments. This suggested that humans had 4 types of temperaments which were sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic.

Furthermore, Claudius Galen contributed to medicine by writing several manuscripts for various medicinal substances such pills, powders, extracts, infusions, and ointments.

The term “Galenic preparations” came to refer to a class of medications used in modern pharmaceutics that utilize many of his compounds, but in a somewhat altered form. The physician also developed the formula for “cold cream,” a popular cosmetic made from thick wax, essential oil, and rose water.

Contribution to Anatomy

Perhaps the most significant thing Claudius Galen did for science was to point out that diseases arise when predisposing circumstances have an effect on the body. He categorized illnesses according to their origins, dividing their causes into those that act from afar and those that have a more direct impact.

Galen demonstrated how physiology and anatomy form the backbone of modern medical practice in diagnosis, treatment, and therapy.

He was an early advocate of integrating the findings of several types of anatomical experiments into clinical treatment. As a result, he is often credited as the person who first began to study the human body through controlled experiments. For example, during his investigations on lung function and respiratory mechanics, he found out that the diaphragm and pectoral muscles had a link with the expansion of the chest.

The physician also contributed to the coining of many terminologies such as, tumor formation, nerve ganglion, abdominal obstruction and peristalsis.

Galen made precise notes on more than 300 human muscles. He demonstrated that the brain and spinal cord, rather than the heart perception, and thought and not the heart.

By severing the spinal cord in two places, Galen demonstrated how all sensation would be lost below the incision. Another significant biological discovery made by Galen was when he demonstrated that blood traveled between the arteries and not pneumia or air.

Other Interesting Facts about Galen

Galen was one of the most renowned physicians of the Roman Empire. Image: Statue of Galen in Pergamon (in today’s Bergama, Izmir, Turkiye)

Galen wrote not just on medical topics like anatomy and physiology, but also about philosophical topics like logic. His works reflect the influence of classical Greek and Roman philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Pyrrho (aka Pyrrho of Elis). Perhaps, his greatest influence was Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician who often seen as the “Father of Medicine”. Galen studied Hippocrates’ works on prognosis and clinical observation.

Below are a few more interesting facts about this renowned Greek physician:

  • He was born in the ancient city of Pergamon, which is in today Bergama, Turkiye.
  • Galen had faith in the god Asclepius’s ability to heal him, but he ultimately concluded that there is only one God.
  • It was an Arab physician named Ibn-al-Nafiz who first disputed Galen’s work in the 1200s. Ibn-al-Nafiz properly identified the pulmonary circulation and argued there were no hidden channels connecting the right and left sides of the heart.
  • Blood, according to Galen’s theory, never returned to the liver or the heart. Instead, it would be used up by the body and have to be constantly replaced.
  • Calm, healer, and peaceful are all Greek translations of the name Galen.
  • For over a millennium, Galen’s ideas on medicine ruled the field in Europe. He trained in Greece but eventually settled in Rome, where he served as the imperial court physician for five emperors.
  • The year of the physician’s death remains a debatable topic as many believed that he died in 199, however, Arabic sources state that he died in 216.

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