History of Medicine
National Library of Medicine
National Institutes of Health
Greek Medicine
I swear by Apollo Physician... Greek Medicine from the Gods to Galen


Lithograph portrait of Galen facing to the right in medieval or Renaissance garb with title “Claude Galien” by Pierre Roche Vigneron. (Paris: Lith de Gregoire et Deneux, circa 1865).  NLM/IHM image B012561.

Galen was born in Pergamos in Asia Minor in the year 129 C.E. After receiving medical training in Smyrna and Alexandria, he gained fame as a surgeon to the gladiators of Pergamos. He was eventually summoned to Rome to be the physician of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen spent the rest of his life at the Court writing an enormous corpus of medical works until his death in 201 C.E.

Taking Hippocrates’ notions of the humors and pathology, Galen incorporated the anatomical knowledge of noted Alexandrians such as Herophilus of Chalcedon (335-280 B.C.E.). A supporter of observation and reasoning, he was one of the first experimental physiologists, researching the function of the kidneys and the spinal cord in controlled experiments.

Galen’s works in many ways came to symbolize Greek medicine to the medical scholars of Europe and the Middle East for the next fifteen centuries. His message of observation and experimentation were largely lost, however, and his theories became dogma throughout the West. In the mid-16th century, however, his message that observation and investigation were required for through medical research began to emerge, and modern methods of such research finally arose.

Galen. De pulsibus. (Venice, ca. 1550).

This Greek manuscript of Galen’s treatise on the pulse is interleaved with a Latin translation.

Page of Greek text in manuscript of Galen’s De Pulsibus (Venice, circa 1550).  NLM Call number MS E 82.


" … is he dead, my Francisco?
ha, bully! What says my Aesculapius?
my Galen? my heart of elder? ha! is he dead,
bully stale? is he dead?"

—William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor