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Galen of Pergamon (Claudius Galenus, or in French, Claude Galien) (Paris: Lithograph by Gregoire et Deneux, ca. 1865).

Galen: A Famous Medical Researcher of Classical Antiquity

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Galen of Pergamum was one of the most renowned physicians that the Roman Empire had ever produced. In addition to being a celebrated physician, Galen is said to have also been a philosopher. Unlike his medical treatises, most of Galen’s philosophical writings have been lost, as a result of a fire that destroyed the Temple of Peace in Rome in 191 AD. His medical works, however, have survived, and have dominated the theory and practice of medicine not only of the Roman world, but also of the Islamic world and Medieval Europe.

The Early Life of Galen

Galen is believed to have been born during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in around 130 AD. His father, a man by the name of Nicon, is recorded to have been a prosperous architect and builder. In his On the Passions and Errors of the Soul, Galen describes his father as such,

“I did enjoy the good fortune of having the least irascible, the most just, the most devoted, and kindest of fathers.”  

By contrast, Galen described his mother as a woman “so very prone to anger”. Between the two, Galen professes to have emulated his father rather than his mother,

“When I compared my father's noble deeds with the disgraceful passions of my mother, I decided to embrace and love his deeds and to flee and hate her passions.”

Portrait of Galen.

Portrait of Galen. (Public Domain)

Apart from his father, Galen’s early life was also influenced by the city he was born in, Pergamum (Pergamon). During Galen’s days, Pergamum was a bustling and flourishing city. Pergamum also had a library that almost rivalled the famed Library of Alexandria in Egypt, indicating that this was a center of learning. Moreover, Pergamum was famous for its statue of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, to whom Galen devoted his life.

According to Galen, at the age of 14, he attended lectures given (mostly) by local philosophers, primarily under a “Stoic who was the disciple of Philopator”. Additionally, he attended lectures for a period of time under a “Platonist, a disciple of Gaius”, a “disciple of Aspasius the Peripatetic”, as well as a “teacher from Athens, an Epicurean”. Galen points out that his father, being a concerned parent, accompanied him to these lectures,

“For my sake, my father made a close investigation of the lives and doctrines of all these men and went along with me to hear them.”

The reconstructed Temple of Trajan at Pergamon.

The reconstructed Temple of Trajan at Pergamon. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nicon’s training, however, “lay chiefly in the sciences of geometry, arithmetic, architecture, and astronomy”, and viewed the subject of philosophy from quite a different perspective. For instance, drawing from his own experience in the sciences he had been trained in, Nicon reached the conclusion (the process prior to which is unclear, due to the Greek text being defective) that:

“there was no need for my teachers in the liberal disciplines to disagree with one another, just as there was no disagreement among the teachers of old in the aforementioned sciences, of which geometry and arithmetic are the foremost.“ 

Galen’s Medical Studies

From Galen’s writings, it can be seen that his father had a great influence on him, and helped shape his subsequent outlook on life. His greatest impact on Galen’s life, however, was a dream he had. In this dream, Asclepius is said to have appeared to Nicon, telling him to let his son study medicine. Nicon did as the god instructed, and for the next four years, Galen studied under the physicians who gathered in the sanctuary of Asclepius.

Following the death of his father, Galen began travelling, during which he also furthered his medical studies. His travels brought him to various places, including Smyrna, Corinth and Alexandria. After being abroad for a number of years, Galen returned to Pergamum in 157 AD, where he was appointed as a physician to the city’s gladiator. In this position, Galen gained much practical experience in the treatment of wounds. Galen remained in Pergamum until 162 AD, when he left for Rome, either as a result of his own ambitions, or due to the civil unrest that broke out in Pergamum.

‘Muscles Man,’ showing the muscles and spine, back view, on an anatomical diagram. Mid-15th century Anathomia, (English) Claudius (Pseudo) Galen.

‘Muscles Man,’ showing the muscles and spine, back view, on an anatomical diagram. Mid-15th century Anathomia, (English) Claudius (Pseudo) Galen. (CC BY 4.0)

In Rome, Galen became a successful physician, which made him resented by the other physicians of the city. As he had created powerful enemies, he decided to depart secretly in 166 AD for fear that he might lose his life if he stayed any longer. For the next couple of years, Galen kept a low profile. He was, however, summoned by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, to serve as his court physician. Galen continued to serve in this capacity during the reigns of Caracalla and Septimius Severus. Galen died either around 200 AD or 216 AD.

Galen wrote hundreds of treatises. In the field of medicine, he is said to have compiled “all significant Greek and Roman medical knowledge to date”, and added his own observations and theories. Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, his works were mostly forgotten in the West.

In the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world, by contrast, Galen’s works were featured prominently in the study of medicine. Thanks to this preservation of knowledge, Galen’s writings were able to find their way back to Western Europe during the Middle Ages.

Featured image: Galen of Pergamon (Claudius Galenus, or in French, Claude Galien) (Paris: Lithograph by Gregoire et Deneux, ca. 1865). Photo source: Public Domain.

By Wu Mingren                               


Boylan, M., 2016. Galen (130—200 C.E.). [Online]
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[Harkins, P. W., (trans.), 1963. Galen’s On the Passions and Errors of the Soul.]
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Osborn, D. K., 2015. Galen. [Online]
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Pearcy, L., 2016. Galen: a Biographical Sketch. [Online]
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The BBC, 2014. Galen (c.130 AD - c.210 AD). [Online]
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This essay does not take into account the most recent authoritative biography of Galen, which the author, Wu Mingren, should have cited in the References section:
Susan Mattern, The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2013)

The important thing is to maintain a sense a wonder, and not be too impatient in attempting to make sense of it all - prematurely closing down one option or another, shoehorning into one or other ideology or agenda, simply because it conflicts with one's 'world view', the latter the product of aeons of evolution (with occasional dead-ends!) .We don't just need better tools for probing our early origins. We need the humility to recognize that our earliest predecessors were not progenitors of our present selves, but transient chemical species all seeking ways of maximising the thermodynamic balance of entropy between themselves and their immediate environment, permitting pockets of chemical and biological complexity to survive and finally self-perpetuate, but IMPORTANTLY ones entirely different from those, like OUR PRESENT SELVES, that now dominate the relatively benign conditions and stable ecosystems of our mature modern-day planet.

That's it! Thanking everyone for their patience and forebearing - readers, contibutors and site manager9s).

Proto-sugars could have arisen initially as simple carbon compounds bristling with -OH (hydroxyl) groups that had useful water-binding, anti-freeze properties, allowing our little irradiated Oparin-puddles (remember Oparin?) of land-based high and not-too-dry reactants to remain liquid in alternating bouts of rainfall and drought. Dispute the details by all means, but it's the principle that is important. The early stages of biogenesis may have used precursors of present day macromolecules, ones that amaze us with their complexity and fitness-for-purpose, that were being tailored and re-tailored aeons ago for entirely different purposes, akin to that whale flipper that was originally a paw or hand in earlier evolution.

For what it's worth, I have proposed that archaeo/palaeo-DNA began as simple purine and pyrimidine bases that arose by random chemical interactions between simple precursors like cyanide, water, CO2 etc. They have strong absorption in the ultraviolet, so could have acted as sunscreen agents on primordial Earth, such that one could have exotic new chemical species generated by energizing radiation being protected by a sunscreen long enough to interact and further "evolve" into something more complex, like a nucleic acid. What about the ribose sugar of nucelotides and the phosphorus you might ask? Where did they come from?

We need to make the same leap in imagination if we're to understand how modern DNA, synthesised off DNA-derived templates, may have had its origins in a primitive DNA or nucleic acid precursors that existed for entirely different purposes, not just ones we can only guess at, but ones that we might not even strive to guess at, not having a time machine at our disposal.


dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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