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GETTING TO KNOW GALEN

by David Osborn, MH, L.Ac
Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Galen was definitely one of the most colorful and interesting characters of history, aside from his central importance to the history of medicine for his many innovations and contributions to the art of healing.  So, aside from studying Galen from a strictly medical viewpoint, it is equally important to get a clear and thorough understanding and appreciation of Galen the man as well.  That is the aim and purpose of a book that I had the great pleasure of reading not too long ago, entitled The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire, by Susan P. Mattern; it is published by Oxford University Press, and I highly recommend reading it.  Although Ms. Mattern does not approach her subject, a great physician who was so central to the history of medicine and its propagation down through the ages, from a strictly medical viewpoint, but more from the perspective of a biographical understanding of the man and what made him tick, the book does indeed contain a lot of useful information on the medical aspect of Galen’s life and work, and is meticulously researched and documented as well.  For those who are interested in learning more about one of history’s most interesting and intriguing characters, this book is quite a lively read.  Galen the man really comes alive within its pages, and we just might be looking at the book that will become the definitive biography of Galen for a long time to come.

“Shameless self promoter,” remarks Ms. Mattern on the back cover jacket of her book.  Yes, that is one of the things that first strikes you when you start reading Galen’s medical treatises; he spends an inordinate amount of time building himself up, often by destroying the theories and reasoning of rival physicians and their competing medical schools, and the pitiful results that they all too often yielded in the practical treatment of patients.  One of the things I enjoyed the most about reading this book is the way Ms. Mattern really brought the competitive medical environment of ancient Rome to life.  The capital of the empire, Rome, attracted the best and brightest, or at least the most bold and ambitious, minds in all fields, including medicine; they often competed for patients by conducting animal vivisection experiments and anatomical demonstrations on street corners in order to prove their medical and surgical skill.  Galen’s medical rivals were always putting him to the test by putting challenges before him that they were sure would stump him and cause him to fail – but Galen always managed to pull through and defy their expectations, to their great chagrin.  The human drama is vivid and amazing.

One reviewer of this book on Amazon.com wrote that it helped the reader to find Galen as the man beyond the image of him that has been portrayed down through the ages, whether that image was a positive one of reverence, or a negative one, being derived from his name being associated with stultified and outmoded theories that have been debunked or disproven.  Galen, the book makes clear, was an insightful observer and student of Nature, as any good empiricist must be, and he was doing the absolute best he could with the tools and resources that were available to him at the time.  Mattern spends a lot of time in the book, and devotes a lot of editorial space, to describing the physician Galen and his methods, and how he pursued medical excellence, in whatever branch of medicine that might be.  Regarding drugs and pharmacology, for example, the book discusses Galen’s many journeys to visit the sources for many of the herbal drugs he used, to learn as much about them as he could.  Galen never lost sight of the fact that the art of medicine is all about treating patients, Ms. Mattern writes, and a whole chapter in her book deals with Galen and the various patients he treated in a very human manner, showing that, for all his bombastic braggadocio, Galen still had a heart.

The chapters of this book deal with the major chapters in, and influences on, Galen’s life.  The first chapter, “Pergamum”, provides an intimate, detailed look at Galen’s hometown, and why he always considered himself to be a native of that city, a Pergamene.  It sets the stage for all that is to follow.  Mattern’s narrative on the prophetic dream of Galen’s father, Nikon, that he should study medicine, is probably the most detailed and vivid account of that decisive and fated event in the young Galen’s life that I have seen anywhere.  The chapter on Learning Medicine provides an in-depth look at Galen’s many different teachers, and what he got from each of them – and why he considered himself to be an eclectic and a philosopher in all matters medical.  Marcus Aurelius and the Plague goes into the complex relationship between Galen and his most famous imperial patron in considerable depth, and also gives interesting details on the making of Galen’s most famous medicinal: the Theriac Electuary. The great fire in Rome, says Mattern, was probably one of the most important events in Galen’s life, with far-reaching consequences.  In short, if you want to take a fascinating intellectual journey back in time to the medical world of ancient Rome, I could recommend no better book than this.

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