Greek physician, writer, and philosopher Galen.


(129 - c. 216)

The writings of Galen dominated medical thought in Europe and the Middle East from the Middle Ages well into the seventeenth century. The author of an estimated three hundred books, he was also physician to multiple Roman emperors, including Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus. Galen believed that anatomy was the basis of medicine, and his dissections of apes, pigs, and sheep led him to refute the four-hundred-year-old belief that arteries carried air, not blood. Ascribing to the Hippocratic belief in the body’s necessity to balance the four humors—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm—he added that imbalances can be detected in specific organs, allowing for greater diagnostic and prescriptive precision.

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Roman physician Galen recounted a debate from which a medical rival “departed in a big hurry, knowing, I imagine, that if he remained he would be proved wrong.” Galen then wrote a book to be delivered to the rival’s followers. “You walked away,” it reads, “behaving like an athletic competitor who seizes the crown and flees before the contest; but today you will not escape refutation, for this book will follow you.”


The ancient physician Galen catalogued the anxious delusions of his melancholic patients, including those of a man who “believes he has been turned into a kind of snail” and “runs away from everyone he meets lest his shell get crushed,” and those of another who “is afraid that Atlas, who supports the world, will become tired and throw it away, and he and all of us will be crushed and pushed together.”


Roman gladiators’ vegetarian diet was so full of beans and barley they were called hordearii, “barley men.” While serving as a gladiator-school physician, Galen criticized the diet; it built up bodies “not with dense and compressed flesh,” he wrote, “but instead rather more spongy.”

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