Claudius Galenus, better known as Galen (anglicized) or Galen of Pergamon, a Greek physician, philosopher and writer is often considered the most significant contributor to ancient medicine following Hippocrates.
He was born in Pergamum (129 CE, Pergamum, Mysia, Anatolia [now Bergama, Turkey]—died c. 216), an ancient center of civilization, where he received extensive training in philosophy and medicine.
From 162 A.D., he lived in Rome where he gained reputation as an experienced physician, served Marcus Aurelius and the later emperors Commodus and Septimius Severus as a physician, and spent the rest of his time writing and experimenting.
He is arguably the most accomplished of all the medical researchers of antiquity and dominated the medical teaching in both the eastern and western world for nearly 1500 years.
The best doctor is also a philosopher
The son of a wealthy architect, he was educated as a philosopher and man of letters. Galen’s wealthy background, social contacts and a friendship with his old philosophy teacher Eudemus (a pupil of Aristotle) further enhanced his reputation as a philosopher and physician.
Yet, increasing scientific specialization led to an emphasis, especially among doctors, on practical, technical, and even business skills at the expense of theoretical and moral training in the non-scientific arts.
He had various responses to this type of question for his own time. But he evidently regarded the problem as significant enough to address explicitly in two separate treatises. Both of these offer Galen’s thinking about the best education for doctors, and articulate his belief in a broad, inter- and multi-disciplinary training.
The first gets right to the point with its title
The Best Doctor is Also a Philosopher
He was moved to write The Best Doctor by his discontent with the medical culture of his day.
Temperament traits can be defined as constitutionally determined dispositional characteristics that influence the manner in which a person’s actions are expressed. An intriguing notion has it that these temperament traits can be traced back to the system of four temperaments that is described in the works of Galen.
Unlike Hippocrates, he argued that humoral imbalances can be located in specific organs, as well as in the body as a whole. This modification of the theory allowed doctors to make more precise diagnoses and to prescribe specific remedies to restore the body’s balance. As a continuation of earlier Hippocratic conceptions, Galenic physiology became a powerful influence in medicine for the next 1,400 years.
Importantly, while the term ‘temperament’ came to refer just to psychological dispositions, Galen used it to refer to bodily dispositions, which determined a person’s susceptibility to particular diseases as well as behavioral and emotional inclinations.
Interestingly, and as per Andres Correa and Marc C. Smaldone, the theory of cancer melancholic diathesis dominated medical science for centuries to come, whereas in 1893, Herbert Snow, a British surgeon and cancer pioneer, performed the first epidemiological study linking cancer and depression. Of note, search (May 09, 2023) using the following keywords: (depression) AND (cancer) at PubMed provides 38,527 results (see Figure at right). This may also suggest that this link or association might be ‘re-discovered’ or ‘re-invented’.
Galen’s medical theory of the Four Temperaments was widely accepted up to 1858, until it was ‘displaced’ by Rudolf Virchow’s newly published premise of cellular pathology.
Galen – a few more quotes
“The physician is only nature’s assistant”.
“Look to the nervous system as the key to maximum health.”
“The chief merit of language is clearness, and we know that nothing detracts so much from this as do unfamiliar terms.”
“(Wine is) the nurse of old age.”
“Laziness breeds humors of the blood.”
“In that case there will be no danger of his performing any evil action, since he practises temperance and despises money: all evil actions that men undertake are done either at the prompting of greed or under the spell of pleasure.”
“Confidence and hope do more good than physic.”
“The reason that I keep writing is that all my most powerful messages about the fates of wild places that I care about need to have words as well as images.”
“He who has two cakes of bread, let him dispose of one of them for some flowers of the narcissus; for bread is the food of the body, and the narcissus is the food of the soul.”
“Who Are You? What do you want? Where Are You Going? Who do you serve and who do you trust?”