Galen considered anatomy to be the foundation of medicine. Because of this, he felt that studying human anatomy was the center of all medical research. But it was illegal to dissect cadavers in his time. Because of this, he dissected animals.1,3,4,9 He believed that animals would have anatomy like humans. Upon examination of several species of animals, he found that there were more similarities than differences. He applied the similarities to human medicine.4,5,9 Unfortunately, this led to many inaccuracies.
His time as a doctor treating the gladiators proved to be very valuable. While there he learned much about hygiene, nutrition and anatomy. He spoke of the gladiators being “windows” in which he could look into. We often consider concepts of hygiene and nutrition to be modern ideas, but these are things that Galen documented about and he gave them considerable importance.4,9
In general, many social works improved the overall hygiene and health of the populace. Public baths, toilets, aqueducts, fountains, sewers and other such infrastructure were major health benefits.5 His observations working with the gladiators and in Rome itself taught him the importance of hygiene and nutrition in preventing illness. His travel had taken him all over the empire and he noted that the health of those in Rome was better than those in outlying areas. His theories for why hygiene and nutrition were important were incorrect, but his observations were sound.9
There was one other important factor in why medicine made so much progress during this era: War. The Roman Emperors hungered to dominate the world and to do so they had to conquer other countries. This meant that the empire was in an almost constant state of war. This had several effects on medicine. The first being that the need for surgery became a constant and heavy demand. War injuries were used to study anatomy. Medicine and medical research was well funded. Those within the medical field had status and respect.9
Treating wounded warriors and gladiators offered physicians the opportunity to gain an understanding of physiology. An opportunity that Galen took full advantage of. He was able to develop surgeries to treat numerous conditions (cataracts) and was able to improve upon long established surgical procedures (trepanation).7
Galen used his experience and experiments to gain practical knowledge which he compared to the formal education that he had received. He tried to confirm the knowledge that he had learned. If he could, he would use it. He believed that it was important to experiment, observe and to document. He did not believe in blindly following medical books. Which is ironic because his work was blindly followed for 1500 years.9 However, this set the stage for his students (much later on) to question everything. It led to the concept of questioning and advancing theories rather than accepting established knowledge.10
Those who are enslaved to their sects are not merely devoid of all sound knowledge, but they will not even stop to learn! -Galen18
Discussion Topic: What does this quote mean?
Galen used vivisection* of animals to perform experiments to gain understanding about how the body works. Because of these experiments, he was able to learn a great deal about nerve function and was able to develop treatments that were able to help many people.9,10Additionally, he was able to glean knowledge from colleges in Alexandria who were vivisecting criminals condemned to death.
- Vivisection: “the practice of subjecting living animals [or humans] to cutting operations, especially in order to advance physiological and pathological knowledge” when there is no gain to the subject.2
Discussion Topic: What are the ethical implications of vivisection? How do these implications compare to the implications of dissection?
– animal vs human vivisection, are the implications different?
– animal rights
– life value
– one vs many
– do the ends justify the means?