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Updated on September 22, 2011

Claudius Galenus

A famous physician born in Pergamum; practiced with great success in Rome, being medical adviser to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his colleague Lucius Verus.

130 - 200 AD

Claudius Galenus (Galen) was born in Pergamum in Asia Minor (now Bergama, Turkey). He studied medicine and philosophy in several enters of Greek learning, including Alexandria, in Egypt. After studying philosophy in Pergamum, he spent the next 10 years studying and practicing medicine in Smyrna, Phoenicia and Greece. He returned to Pergamum, where he was appointed a physician to the gladiators. Gladiators were fighters who fought other gladiators or wild animals in arenas to entertain the public. His job was to tend to the wounds of a troop of gladiators. This taught him a lot about the human body and how to try to heal it. He noticed that when nerves are cut muscles may not work.

He also found that arteries carried blood, not air as many people believed. His fame spread, and at the age of 34 he went to Rome.

In Rome, he became a friend of Marcus Aurelius, who secured for him the post of physician to Commodus, his heir. Galen had not the direct simplicity of Hippocrates, but although his scientific work is marred by superstition, his system of medicine is remarkably complete and was consulted for 1300 years. He also wrote on philosophy, logic and ethics, praising the self-denial of the Christians.

Galen is often called the father of experimental physiology. Physiology is the study of the structure of living things. Galen earned this name because he dissected many animals and drew medical conclusions that applied to human beings. Even by the Middle Ages, Galen was still considered one of the foremost medical authorities.

Galen realized that the Barbary ape, a monkey from Africa, was similar in some ways to human beings. Since the Roman laws of his time prevented Galen from dissecting humans, he reasoned that he could learn much about the human body by dissecting monkeys. He made many accurate observations, especially about the heart and circulatory system. For instance, Galen found that arteries carry blood. Up to that time, physicians had thought that the arteries carry air to body parts. Galen described the valves of the heart and the difference between weins and arteries. He also made important observations about bones, muscles and nerves. He also knew the heart set the blood in motion, but he failed to discover how the blood circulated through the human body.

Some of Galen's theories have been disproved by modern medical science. For instance, Galen thought that four main substances called humours - phlegm, black bile, yellow bile and blood - must be in balance in the body for a human to be healthy. This idea was regarded as medical fact for many centuries.

Galen gave lectures in the public theater and performed experiments before large audiences. His important contributions rank him second to Hippocrates in the history of medicine.

Galen wrote more than 400 books, but only 83 remain. These have been translated into many languages. One of his best-known books is On the Natural Faculties. Unfortunately, his writings contain many errors. Because his authority was unquestioned, these errors were accepted by physicians and scholars throughout the Middle Ages.


  • Men and Women of Science, Volume 8, The World Book Encyclopedia of Science, 1989
  • Pears Cyclopaedia, Twenty-Ninth Edition, 1926
  • The World Book Encyclopedia, Volume 8, World Book Inc, 1985
  • The Oxford Children's Book of Famous People, 1994, Oxford University Press
  • The New International Illustrated Encyclopaedia, Volume 2, 1954


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      so true


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