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Claudius Galen: Physician, Surgeon and Philosopher

Claudius Galenus, better known as “Galen of Pergamon” was a Roman physician, surgeon, and philosopher. Galen was born in 131 AD. His father, Aelius Nicon, was a wealthy Greek architect who provided him with a good education and opportunities to travel.

At the age of 14, he embarked on his philosophical studies by attending Platonic, Stoic, Aristotelian and Epicurean lectures. When Galen was 16, his father had a dream and encouraged his son to study medicine, which he undertook without neglecting his philosophical studies.

Galen settled in Rome, and served emperors, including Marcus Aurelius, as principal physician. He learned about trauma care while treating professional gladiators, and wrote more than 500 books on medicine. He believed the best way to learn was through dissecting animals and studying anatomy. He performed the vivisection of numerous animals to study the function of kidneys and the spinal cord. His favorite subjects were monkeys. According to his own testimony, he used twenty scribes to write down his words. Many of his works and manuscripts were however destroyed in 191, by the fire that broke out in the library of the Temple of Peace.

Although Galen discovered the functions of many internal organs, he made mistakes because he assumed that the bodies of animals were exactly like those of humans.

Galen’s influence was great. His books were still being used in the Middle Ages and, for many medical students, they were the primary source of information on medicine.

There is debate over the date of his death, but Galen was at least 70 when he died.

Key works:

  • c.190 CE The Temperaments
  • c.190 CE The Natural Faculties
  • c.190 CE Three Treatises on the Nature of Science


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