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A Modern Doctor in Ancient Times – The Story of Galen

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Aelius Galenus, also known as Galen of Pergamon, was born in 129 AD in Pergamon (now in Turkey and then part of the Roman Empire). Galen is considered one of the most outstanding doctors who ever lived. 

Galen’s approach to medicine was surprisingly modern, and he served as a doctor to a series of Roman Emperors. In addition to being a physician, Galen was also a surgeon, psychologist, writer, and philosopher.

Early Life and studies at the Great Library of Alexandria

Galen was born into a wealthy family. Galen’s father was an architect and mathematician and ensured that his son obtained the best education possible. Galen wrote that he was “fortunate in having the most just and the most devoted of fathers.” As a young student, Galen studied the classical Greek subjects of geometry, philosophy, logic, and literature. Galen’s father encouraged Galen to become a doctor when he was 17 years old, advising Galen to decide matters for himself and not blindly follow any prevailing beliefs.

When Galen was 19 years old, his father, unfortunately, died. Galen was left with a substantial legacy and decided to travel to essential places to further his study of medicine. Galen not only spent a much longer time studying medicine than any of his contemporaries, but he also learned medicine from a wide variety of sources. Most important for his later development as a doctor were Galen’s years spent studying at the Great Library of Alexandria.

For Galen, the Great Library of Alexandria was an essential source of information. Already by Galen’s time, the acquisition of knowledge was becoming more and more difficult. People were forbidden to conduct autopsies, so studying human anatomy and circulation became guesswork. The Great Library, however, had records of autopsies performed by the ancient Greeks. This helped Galen understand human anatomy and so better understand the effect of diseases and illnesses. Most other Doctors in Galen’s time had no such learning and suggested cures based mainly on superstition.

Galen wrote, “Let it be your serious concern not only to learn accurately from books the shape of each bone but also to carry out a keen visual examination of the human bones. This is very easy at Alexandria since the physicians there employ visual demonstration in teaching to their pupils. For this reason – even if for no other – try to visit Alexandria”.

Becoming the Emperors’ Doctor

Galen learned by studying the books of ancient Greek Doctors as well as by dissections of dead animals. Through this, he better understood the make-up of the human body. In addition, Galen understood that human health also depended on psychological factors. Galen wrote that “the best physician is also a philosopher.” Galen believed that “the physician is only nature’s assistant” and that we must “exercise ourselves constantly” to stay healthy.

In 162 AD, Galen went to Rome and built up a successful practice. Galen did not charge patients a fee, although when he cured a Roman governor’s wife, he was given 400 gold coins, which he accepted. Galen soon became the court doctor to Emperors Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, Commodus, and Septimius Severus.

Galen’s Legacy

Historians are not sure exactly when Galen died, but most believe that he lived to 87. Ironically for a person who thought that one needs to keep learning and experimenting, Galen’s many books on medicine came to be accepted unquestioningly for close to 1,500 years.

Dr. Michael Besser, from the University of Sydney, Australia, writes that “Galen’s writings have remained the core essence of western medical education into the modern era.” 

Susan Mattern, the author of a book on Galen, writes that “Regarding medical research Galen’s passion was intense and unambiguous. His lifestyle came to him by birthright; but his skill and reputation, by hard work, exhaustive study, experiment, experience, and proven superiority over his rivals.”

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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