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Tuesday, 17 March 2015


In 168 Galen of Pergamon (c130-c200) was appointed the physician to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ son Commodus. This afforded him the opportunity to study and write on many topics including medical matters. As a result Galen wrote around 100 medical textbooks, which helped set a new agenda for medicine and he became the most renowned physician in ancient Rome.

Unfortunately, Galen's wrong ideas, which were largely based on the dissections of dogs, goats, monkeys and pigs blocked medical progress for many centuries. For instance he taught that the brain was a large clot of phlegm, the heart had two chambers, and that blood moves outwards from the liver to the surface of the body to form flesh.

Galen was also erroneous in many of his cures such as claiming the best way to treat a cough was to amputate the uvula, which is suspended from the patient’s palate at the back end of his tongue.

Galen's apparent mastery of the medical literature of the past, resulted in him reviving ancient theories such as the best way to cure a headache was to bore holes in the skull and that post-operative wounds should be dressed with pigeon’s blood.

Galen did discover that arteries contained blood thereby correcting the mistaken Greek theory that they contained air.

He also had a rare understanding of psychosomatic illnesses. The wife of a Roman noble had been suffering from an organic complaint, for which her doctor had been unable to help her with. Galen was called for and while taking her pulse, he mentioned the name of an actor with whom her name was linked in the gossip of the town. Her pulse rate rapidly increased so he made an amusing comment, which made her laugh. That laugh began her cure and was an innovative example of a psychiatric treatment for a psychosomatic illness.

When Johannes Guinter, a professor of medicine at the University of Paris, translated Galen’s On Anatomical Procedures into Latin in 1531. the Roman physician was still acknowledged by the church to be the world’s only official authority on human anatomy. To query Galen’s authority on anatomy was an act of heresy punishable by death. This was in spite of the fact Galen gleaned his knowledge from dissecting dogs and pigs rather than the human body. 

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