Herophilus of Chalcedon

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Herophilus of Chalcedon

335-280 b.c.

Greek Physician and Anatomist

Herophilus of Chalcedon was a Greek physician and anatomist who performed human dissections at the world-renowned Museum of Alexandria. Herophilus gained fame as a physician and medical instructor, and because of his careful human dissections, he has been called the "Father of Anatomy." Frequently quoted by the medical colossus Galen (129-216 b.c.), his careful and detailed works on the brain, eyes, nerves, liver, and arteries greatly advanced understanding of both human anatomy and physiology.

The Greek-controlled city of Alexandria, Egypt, was fast becoming a growing center of scholarly activities when Herophilus established himself there at the invitation of King Ptolemy (r. 323-285 b.c.), and he became the leading physician and anatomist at the Museum of Alexandria. He is believed to have produced at least nine written works that are known to have influenced his contemporaries and future generations of physicians, including the most influential of all physicians, Galen, whose writings dominated human medicine for centuries after his death. Unfortunately, none of the works of Herophilus survived directly, and we are left with only the frequent quotes of his writings made by others, especially Galen, Dioscorides (c. a.d. 40-90), Pliny (a.d. 23-79), and Plutarch (c. a.d. 46-after 119). Herophilus worked in Alexandria during a single brief period that saw the ruling Greeks relax their long-held prohibition on human dissections. This allowed Herophilus to study human internal anatomy in considerable detail, and he was able to advance overall knowledge of human anatomical design and function tremendously. This knowledge and learning came at the cost of being labeled a desecrating pagan and butcher of men in the minds of many subsequent Greek and Roman philosophers and writers in the generations that came after him.

Herophilus was a follower of the Hippocratic doctrine of medicine, which saw health and disease as a balance or imbalance of the four humors of the body. He believed that proper diet and exercise were the necessary ingredients to good health, and when a patient's health was out of balance, the most useful treatments available to physicians were a variety of herbal and mineral drugs, as well as bloodletting. This type of holistic medicine stressed proper nutrition, essential physical exercises, and a strong moral philosophy as keys to a healthy life. Physicians enforced these tenets in themselves and their patients, and when illness struck a patient, the physician sought to provide comfort, aid, and certainly some specific curative herbal concoctions, while doing no further harm to the patient. Herophilus was a student of Praxagoras (fl. fourth century b.c.), and he sought to advance understanding of the system of arteries and veins that had been described by Praxagoras. In his studies, Herophilus concentrated on the structures and functions of the three important organs that were subject to generations of great debate: the liver, the heart, and the brain.

Herophilus dissected human cadavers to find "the nature of the fatal malady," and probably performed these dissections in a public forum as instruction to other physicians. Herophilus expanded the known details of the human heart and its arteries and veins, and he focused on the pulse of the heart, measured it with a water clock and described various diagnostic values of the pulse. Herophilus also described the lacteals, the liver, the prostate gland, and named the duodenum. His greatest and most influential contribution lies in his details of the human brain and the many nerves of the body. He distinguished the cerebellum from the cerebrum, described the ventricles of the brain, and classified nerve trunks as containing sensory nerve connections into the brain and motor nerve connections from the brain to the rest of the body. He also described the structure of the eye and traced the arrangement of the brain's protective dura mater. Herophilus was one of the first to describe the brain not as a cooling structure, but as the organ of human intelligence and sensory control. Herophilus's work was well respected and influenced the Roman medical giant Galen, who became the most prominent physician of his time and dominated medicine for many subsequent generations.


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Herophilus of Chalcedon

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