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Galen (Greek: Γαληνός, Latin: Claudius Galenus of Pergamum; 129 C.E. – c. 210 C.E.) was the Greek physician and philosopher whose views were most instrumental in the development of medicine in the late Greco-Roman period. Galen valued observation, experimentation, and logical analysis in the studies of medicine, and conducted a number of anatomical studies by dissecting living animals.

Galen's experimental methods foreshadowed later developments of Western scientific medicine. He is rightly regarded as the pioneer in surgery, making use of his knowledge of anatomy as the basis for surgical procedures that are used to this day. Yet his experimental methods were forgotten by later generations, who simply accepted as dogma the theories that he derived from research and careful observation.


While Galen's his contribution in medical science is comparable to that of Hippocrates, his fame was overshadowed by that of Hippocrates. It is known that Galen extensively studied Plato and Aristotle, and wrote a number of works in philosophy. Unfortunately, those philosophical treatises were lost.

Over 20 volumes of writings accredited to Galen are still in existence, however half of these works may not have been the works of Galen himself.


Galen was born around 129 C.E. in Pergamum (modern-day Bergama, Turkey), the son of Aeulius Nicon, a wealthy architect who made sure his son received a broad education. Galen studied mathematics, grammar, logic; and the philosophy the four major schools of the time, the Platonists, the Peripatetics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans. He also studied agriculture, architecture, astronomy, and astrology. When Galen was about sixteen years old, his father had a dream that he should study medicine. For four years he served as a therapeutes ("attendant" or "associate") of the healing god Asclepius in the local temple.

After his father died in 148 or 149 C.E., Galen studied abroad in Smyrna, Corinth and Alexandria. Galen later declared that students should "…look at the human skeleton with your own eyes. This is very easy in Alexandria, so that the physicians of that area instruct their pupils with the aid of autopsy" (Kühn II, 220, L. Edelstein, trans.). It is not clear whether Galen himself studied in this fashion, but he did conduct dissections of monkeys and pigs to demonstrate. When he returned to Pergamum in 157 C.E., Galen worked as a physician in a gladiator school for three or four years. He later remarked that wounds were "windows into the body." Galen performed audacious operations that were not used again for almost two millennia, including brain and eye surgery. Galen performed cataract surgery by inserting a long needle-like instrument into the eye behind the lens and pulling it back slightly to remove the cataract.

After civil unrest broke out in 162 C.E., Galen moved to Rome where he wrote extensively, lectured and publicly demonstrated his knowledge of anatomy. He gained a reputation as an experienced physician and his practice had a widespread clientele. He returned to Pergamum briefly in 166–169 C.E., then was recruited by the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to serve the army in their war against the Germans. When the Black Plague hit Rome, Galen was made personal physician to Marcus Aurelius and Aurelius' son, Commodus. Galen spent the rest of his life in the Imperial court, writing and experimenting. He performed vivisections of numerous animals to study the function of the kidneys and the spinal cord. His favorite subject was the Barbary ape, because of its resemblance to the human body. It is reported that he employed 20 scribes to write down his words.

Based upon the Suda Lexicon (written around 1000 C.E.), Galen died in Rome around 199-200 C.E. New research suggests that Galen may have lived into his eighties (possibly as old as 87), based on Byzantine and Arab copies of works which appear to have been written as late as than 207 C.E.

Thought and Works

Galen’s collected works total 22 volumes, including the 17 volumes of On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Human Body. He is said to have written at least one sentence per day for most of his life. Some Galenic works exist only in Arabic translations, and many others have been lost. Some of his treatises on philosophy, logic, physics, and ethics perished in a fire that consumed the Temple of Peace in 191 C.E. Galen attempted to synthesize the best ideas of his predecessors both in medicine and in philosophy and logic.

Ancient medicine practitioners disagreed over whether a doctor should rely only upon experience in treating an illness, or whether he should treat an illness based on accepted principles and theories. Galen applied Aristotelian critical empiricism, making careful observations and using comprehensive theory to give meaning to his observations. He admitted at the same time that practical experience was a valuable source of medical knowledge.

In his Introduction to Logic, recognizing the limits of Stoic and Aristotelian logic, he introduced relational syllogisms to show how two conditional statements could be combined to arrive at a third conclusion.

Galen developed a “theory of demonstration” which involved making careful observations and applying logic to discover medical truths. He conducted numerous experiments on live animals to demonstrate the functions of various organs and parts of the body. He cut the nerve bundles of a live pig one at a time, to illustrate which functions were affected by each one. When the laryngeal nerve was cut the pig would stop squealing; this nerve is now also known as Galen's Nerve. He also tied the ureters of living animals to show that urine comes from the kidneys, and severed spinal cords to demonstrate paralysis. Galen also experimented with barbary apes and goats, though he emphasized that he practiced on pigs because, in some respects, they are anatomically similar to humans. Galen was able to use his methods to construct viable explanations of physiology and pathology. Some of his ideas were in error, because he assumed that human anatomy was identical to that of the animals he studied.

Galen attacked skeptic epistemology on the grounds that nature could not have supplied humans with sensory organs that were intrinsically deceptive. At the same time, he urged very careful observation of all the circumstances surrounding sensory impressions. In medicine, a small variation in the circumstances of two patients with similar symptoms could give each patient’s symptoms an entirely different significance.

Galen opposed the Stoic concept of a “unitary” psychology by conducting experiments to show that the brain was the source of voluntary action. He also argued that the mind existed in the human brain, not in the heart as Aristotle believed.

On the Elements According to Hippocrates describes a system of four bodily humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm, which were identified with the four classical elements and were on a cycle in tune with the four seasons.

Galen's theories, in accord with Plato's, emphasized purposeful creation by a single Creator ("Nature"; Greek: phusis).

Galen's authority dominated Western medicine until the sixteenth century, when Vesalius presented the first serious challenge to his hegemony. Medical practitioners accepted Galen’s explanations of physiology and anatomy rather than conducting further studies. Blood letting became a standard medical procedure. Medieval Islamic medicine drew on the works of the ancient Greeks, especially those elucidated by Galen, such as his expanded humoral theory. Most of Galen's Greek writings were first translated to the Syriac language by Nestorian monks in the university of Gundishapur, Persia. Muslim scholars primarily in Baghdad translated the Syriac manuscripts into Arabic, along with many other Greek classics. They became some of the main sources for Arabian scholars such as Avicenna, Rhazes, and Maimonides. Galen was known in Arabic as Jalinos, and many people with that name today are considered to be descended from him.


  • Bendick, Jeanne. Galen and the Gateway to Medicine. (Living History Library). Bethlehem Books, 2002. ISBN 1883937752
  • Barnes, Jonathan. "A Third Sort of Syllogism: Galen and the Logic of Relations" in Modern Thinkers and Ancient Thinkers. R. W. Sharples, ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.
  • Boylan, Michael. "Galen's Conception Theory." Journal of the History of Biology 19(1) (1986): 44-77.
  • Cosans, Christopher E. "The Experimental Foundations of Galen's Teleology" Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 29A.1 (1998): 63-90.
  • Crombie, A. C. Augustine to Galileo. Vol. 1. London: Heinemann, 1961.
  • Edelstein, Ludwig. Ancient Medicine. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. New edition, 1987. ISBN 0801834910
  • Galen, De Lay. On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 3 vols., 1978-1983.
  • Galen. Galen: On the Natural Faculties. (Loeb Classical Library). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916. ISBN 0674990781
  • Galen, Peter Singer, trans., Selected Works (The World's Classics). New York: Oxford University Press, new edition, 1997. ISBN 0192839373
  • Gill, Christopher. "Galen vs. Chrysippus on the Tripartite Psyche in 'Timaeus' 69-72" in Interpreting the 'Timaeus-Critias, Tomas Calvo ed. Sankt Augustin: Academia: 1997.
  • Kagan, Jerome, Nancy Snidman, Doreen Ardus, J. Steven Rezinck. Galen's Prophecy: Temperament in Human Nature. New York: Basic Books, 1994. ISBN 0465084052
  • Kudlien, Fridolf and Richard J. Durling. Galen's Method of Healing. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991. ISBN 9004092722
  • Lloyd, G. E. R. Methods and Problems in Greek Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. ISBN 0521374197
  • Mansfield, Jaap. "The Idea of the Will in Chrysippus, Posidonius, and Galen." Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 7 (1991): 107-145.
  • Rescher, Nicholas. Galen and the Syllogism: An Examination of the Thesis that Galen Originated the Fourth Figure of the Syllogism in Light of New Data from the Arabic. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.
  • Sarton, George. Galen of Pergamon. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1954.
  • Siegel, Rudolph. Galen's System of Physiology and Medicine. Basel: Karger, 1968.
  • Smith, Wesley. The Hippocratic Tradition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979. ISBN 0801412099
  • Temkin, Owsei. Galenism: The Rise and Decline of a Medical Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973. ISBN 0801407745
  • Tieleman, Teun. "Plotinus on the Seat of the Soul: Reverberations of Galen and Alexander in Enn. IV, 3 27ESS, 23." Phronesis 43.4 (1998): 306-325.

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2013.

General Philosophy Sources


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