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Claudius Galenus or Galen was born in Pergamum, an old Greek city on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, presently known as Turkey, in 129 AD. Galen was a Greek physician and philosopher and his contributions to medical theory and practice were the most remarkable in his time. Galen’s father, Aelius Nicon, was a wealthy Architect with a prolific interest in mathematics, science, astronomy, and literature.  And it was his interest in learning and growth that influenced Galen’s interest in culture and science.

Pergamum was a culturally rich city, making great progress in learning and science and hence proved to be an excellent ground for Galen’s growth as an individual and his success. The city also housed a library that almost paralleled in material and size to the library in Alexandria, Egypt and meant that Pergamum became the visiting ground for most philosophers around the world. Galen, due to his affluent background and the influence of his father, was exposed to these philosophers and their ideologies from an age as early as 14. Galen’s father made sure that his son’s intellect was honed by the best teachers and philosophers he could hire. When Galen was around the age of 16, his father claimed to have seen God Asclepius (a Greek god) in his dreams who commanded him to invest his son’s intellect in the field of medicine. Hence, it was meant for Galen to study at the prestigious local sanctuary or Asclepieum dedicated to Asclepius, god of medicine. Galen spent the rest of his time learning and bettering the methods of medicine.

Upon his father’s death, Galen traveled much of the eastern Mediterranean to cities of Cyprus, Alexandria, and Izmir to gain more insight into medicine and healing i.e. surgery. Galen’s journey culminated with the post of a physician in Alexandria, Egypt. After about a decade spent in Alexandria, Galen returned to Pergamum in 157 C.E. where he served as physician to a group of gladiators (professional combatants). In 162, Galen left for Rome and established his renown as a physician. Galen served as an exemplary figure in his demonstrations of the human anatomy and garnered great interest from patients who other physicians had pronounced as incurable. Galen was eventually summoned and appointed as personal physician to Marcus Aurelius.

Galen’s approach rendered him different than other physicians of his time because he infused medicine with philosophy and practiced healing methods through ethical reasoning. Galen was the first during his time to establish that arteries carried blood and not air – as was the popular belief then. Galen’s theories of blood’s circulation were greatly contested during his time for he challenged age-old practices and beliefs. Galen proved the existence of blood and arteries by cutting open the body cavity of animals and used empirical observations to support his findings.

When The Antonine Plague struck Rome in 166 AD, Galen had been present in Rome. And with his experience and knowledge of epidemics, Galen was able to describe the disease and prescribe a treatment method. The Antonine Plague is also referred to as Plague of Galen for this is when Galen started recording and writing all his findings, observations and treatment methods which served as a great boon to the ancient Greek and to the world of medicine in general.

To describe his methods of philosophy and medicine Galen drew great inspiration from Plato, Aristotle and historical figures such as Hippocrates. Galen’s training in mathematics allowed him to design experimental methods to rationalize his findings and present a well rounded explanatory system to prove his findings. Galen managed to integrate theory with empirical observations and created a whole new way to perceive medicine. Galen died at the ripe old age of 70 and left behind a towering legacy for the world to follow and build upon.

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