Galen (c. AD 129–c. 216)

Roman surgical instruments

Roman surgical instruments.




Galen was both an anatomical and a physiologist. He proposed the theory that temperament was controlled by the balance of the four humours in the body (blood, phlegm, and yellow and black bile).

Galen was a Greek physician, born at Pergamus, in Mysia (on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey), who became the most celebrated doctor in the Roman empire. His teachings powerfully influenced the practice of medicine in Europe and the near east for many centuries.


Galen, or Claudius Galenus, began his study of medicine at the age of 19 in Pergamus, before moving on to Smyrna, Corinth, and Alexandria (where there was a famous school of anatomy and surgery). On his return to his native city in AD 158 he was already a celebrated physician and his services were much in demand; he was appointed physician to the school of gladiators which gave him plenty of experience of trauma medicine. But six years later he went to Rome, where he stayed for about four years, and gained such a reputation that he was offered, though he declined, the post of physician to the emperor. Scarcely had he returned to Pergamus, however, when he received a summons from the emperors Marcus Aurelius and L. Verus to attend them in the Venetian territory, and shortly afterwards he followed them to Rome (170). There he remained several years, attending M. Aurelius and his two sons, Commodus and Sextus, and about the end of the second century he was employed by the emperor Severus.


Galen wrote a great deal not only on medical, but also on philosophical subjects, such as logic, ethics, and grammar. His most important anatomical and physiological works are De anatomicis administrationibus, and De usu partium corporis humani. As an anatomist, he combined with patient skill and close observation as practical dissector – not of the human body, but of other animals – accuracy of description and clarity of writing. He gathered up all the medical knowledge of his time and presented it so convincingly that it continued to be, as he left it, the authoritative account of the science for centuries. His ideas about physiology were dominated by theoretical notions that seem strange to us today, notably those of the four Hippocratic elements (hot, cold, wet, and dry) and the Hippocratic humors. His therapeutics were also influenced by the same notions, drugs having the same four elemental qualities as the human body; and he was a believer in the principle of curing diseases traceable, according to him, to the maladmixture of the elements, by the use of drugs having the opposite elementary qualities. In his diagnosis and prognosis he laid great stress on the pulse, on which subject he was perhaps the first and greatest authority, for all subsequent writers adopted his system without alteration. Also he emphasized the doctrine of critical days, which he believed to be influenced by the Moon.


Subsequent Greek and Roman medical writers were mere compilers from his writings; and as soon as his works were translated (in the ninth century) into Arabic they were at once adopted throughout the East to the exclusion of others.


The terms galenical and galenist refer to the controversies of the period when the authority of Galen was strongly asserted against all innovations, and particularly against the introduction of chemical, or rather alchemical, ideas and methods into medicine.