In Our Time: Galen

Galen was a Greek doctor who lived in the 2nd Century AD and wrote an incredible amount about the practice of medicine. His works were still used as the standard medical texts in Europe & the Islamic world until the Renaissance era – and some parts even after that. The experts discussing it on In Our Time were Vivian Nutton (University College London), Helen King (Open University) and Caroline Petit (University of Warwick).

Galen was born in Pergamon, Greece (the city of the Pergamon Altar, now in Berlin) and was the son of an architect. At this time Pergamon was a rich city and was spending a lot of money on civic buildings, so Galen’s family were well off. Galen was bring brought up as an intellectual, but then when he was 17 his father had a dream where the god of medicine appeared to him and told him that Galen must become a doctor. His medical education began in Pergamon, and later he moved to Alexandria. There he learnt about anatomy, pharmacology and other areas of medical knowledge. Apparently he didn’t much enjoy his time there – Nutton said Galen wrote that he hated the country, he hated the people, he hated the weather, he hated the food. But nonetheless he stayed there for around 5 years, before returning to Pergamon at the age of around 28.

He began to practice medicine in his home town, where he became the doctor who looked after the gladiators. A couple of years later moved to Rome. It’s not known why he moved – maybe just for ambition, or maybe he had other reasons to wish to leave his home town. Once in Rome he gradually built up a reputation as an exceptional doctor. He did this in part by demonstrations, and in part by treating people who then spread the word about being cured by him. Eventually he rose to become the Emperor’s doctor.

Galen wrote a lot. He wrote primarily about medicine, but also about philosophy and about his own life. All three experts agreed that one of the problems with studying Galen is that the best and often only source for his life is himself – which obviously means that any exaggeration or shading of the truth is hard to detect. Galen’s medical texts were partly based on what he had learnt during his education, but they contained a lot of innovative ideas and were grounded in Galen’s own observations of diseases. One of Galen’s primary focuses was on prognosis (and one of his better known works is called On Prognosis) – he was interested in using his observations of the patient’s body and environment to predict what would happen next in the disease. He used a variety of techniques to treat disease – he followed the acknowledged path of the day to first try to cure via the diet of the patient, then use drugs (generally plant based) and then to try surgery. Unusually for an elite doctor of the time Galen did his own surgery, rather than regarding it as too “manual” for a person like himself.

Even by the end of Galen’s lifetime he was beginning to be regarded as the place to turn when learning about medicine. And this grew over the next few hundred years. His works were gradually streamlined into a canon, that weren’t necessarily the whole story, and then were translated via Arabic into Latin. Medieval doctors relied on the information in Galen in their medical education, even though complete texts were hard to come by. But in the Renaissance some of the fundamental underpinnings of Galen’s work were queried – Vesalius began to do dissections on humans and realised that much of Galen’s anatomical knowledge was derived from animals (a point I think they could’ve brought out more earlier in the programme). And Harvey’s work on circulation showed that the four humours theory of how the body works was clearly not the case. But even after this Galen’s pharmacology was still useful (and some parts still are today).

The programme seemed to run out of time a bit abruptly towards the end, so there wasn’t as much on Galen’s legacy as I might’ve liked to hear.