Greek physician; b. 129 AD (Pergamum, Mysia, Anatolia), d. c. 199 AD (Rome)
Galen was the son of an architect, but his interest as a youth was in medicine. Pergamum was the site of a Temple of Asclepius (the Greek god of healing), which many sick visited in the hope of being cured. The city also had a gladiator school, so the young Galen had much opportunity to inspect fresh wounds and monitor the healing process.
Galen's father decided that his son should combine the study of medicine with the study of philosophy, and Galen became acquainted with the teachings of Platonism and Aristotelianism as well as the other two main philosophical schools Epicureanism and Stoicism. He continued his medical studies in Smyrna, Corinth and Alexandria, where he dissected animals. In 157 he returned to Pergamum to become chief physician of the gladiator school.
Galen was very ambitious, and in 166 he decided to go to Rome, where his arrogance soon made him many enemies. But his success as a physician was undeniable. He took on cases others had declared incurable and was in demand at the court of emperor Marcus Aurelius. He held public lectures and performed public dissections that attracted personalities of highest rank.
In 166 AD troops returning from one of Rome's colonial wars brought the plague to Rome. Galen quickly returned to Pergamum, claiming that the envy of his colleagues was too much for him to bear. But when the emperor recalled him two years later he willingly returned. He was appointed physician to Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus, which gave him the time to further increase his output of written works. Nothing is known about his life after this appointment; Galen probably never returned to Pergamum.
Galen's written works cover three topics. His anatomical works have a solid foundation in his own anatomical studies including vivisections of African monkeys (for example tying off a nerve to show that the brain controls the voice, or transecting the spinal cord to study muscle control). He finally discovered that the arteries do not carry air, as had been believed for 400 years, but blood.
In his physiological works Galen followed Hippocrates in believing that equilibrium of the "four humours" is necessary for a healthy body. His support for these ideas was to dominate medicine for the next 1400 years.
Believing that a good physician also has to be a good philosopher, Galen wrote extensively about questions of religion. He criticized the Jewish religion for "unreasoned assertions" and discussed the influence of Christianity on Roman life. Most of Galen's philosophical writings have been lost.
Galen's medical works were edited in annotated collections by Arab scientists from the 9th century onward. The physician Hunayn ibn Ishaq published an annotated edition of 129 of Galen's works. During the 11th century this edition was translated into Latin. During the 15th and 16th centuries the humanists of the Renaissance decided to produce Latin translations from Galen's original Greek text, which prompted them to repeat some of his experiments. As a result, Galen's work served as an important stimulus to scientific investigation during the Renaissance.
Portrait: lithography by Pierre Roch Vigneron, Lith. de Gregoire et Deneux, Paris 1865 (?), US National Library of Medicine; public domain
The European pharmaceutical industry allocates the "Prix Galien" to new pharmaceutics that are considered a major breakthrough. Germany has its own "Galenus-von-Pergamon-Preis".