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Galen ca. A.D . 130–ca. 216 Greek Physician

ca. a.d. 130–ca. 216
Greek physician

The ideas and writings of the Greek physician Galen influenced medicine for centuries after his death. His theories on subjects such as anatomy, disease, and patient care spread through translations in western Europe and the Middle East. His ideas formed the basis of European medicine during the Renaissance, when scholars studied and critiqued his work. Although many of his theories later turned out to be flawed, his ideas laid a strong foundation for further medical advances.

Galen grew up in the Greek colony of Pergamum in Asia Minor. As the son of a prosperous architect, he received an extensive education and became an apprentice* to a local physician. After completing his medical education, Galen served as a physician to gladiators, fighters who battled each other to the death as a form of public entertainment. In 161 Galen moved to Rome, where a member of the government became his patron* and recommended his services to wealthy patients. He also published two major works on anatomy, On Anatomical Procedures and On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body. Galen soon became a well-known physician and writer, producing over 300 works. At the age of 40, he gained the post of court physician to the Roman emperor.

Galen based some of his medical theories on the ideas of Hippocrates, another ancient Greek physician. For example, Hippocrates claimed that the body contained four fluids known as "humors"—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Hippocrates believed that a person was in good health if these fluids were in balance within the body. Galen adapted this idea, arguing that each part of the body had a unique mixture of humors, which he called temperament. He also upheld Hippocrates' belief that observation and experience were the keys to proper medical practice. In the course of his research, he dissected* apes, dogs, pigs, and one elephant.

Galen's work spread as Arabic translations of all of his writings appeared in the 800s. A monk in Italy later translated Galen's work into Latin in the 1000s. Hundreds of years later, his ideas thrived in Italy, with 590 editions of his works published there between 1500 and 1600. During the Renaissance, Galen's treatises* had a strong impact on Italian universities. They helped to influence the movement known as medical humanism, which aimed to practice medicine in the manner of the ancient physicians.

From Galen's writings, many Italian scholars learned how to dissect and describe different structures of the body. Interest in Galen's work helped to raise the status of anatomy from a minor part of medical education to an important field of study. As the study of anatomy expanded, scholars began to find flaws in Galen's work. Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius revealed many errors in Galen's descriptions of human anatomy. However, he continued to support many of Galen's methods and medical ideas.

(See alsoAnatomy; Classical Scholarship; Medicine. )

* apprentice

person bound by legal agreement to work for another for a specified period of time in return for instruction in a trade or craft

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* dissect

to cut open a body to examine its inner parts

* treatise

long, detailed essay

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