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Translating Galen

18 Aug, 2009

From ‘Galen studies a group of bones lying on the ground’ by J Caldwall, 1796-1797

Galen of Pergamon’s extraordinarily prolific writings dominated medical science for over a millennium – yet to date no more than 25 per cent of his work has been translated into a modern language. A team of Wellcome Trust-funded researchers is now translating some of his most important works into English so that a wider audience can enjoy them.

“Until the 19th century every self-respecting physician had the works of Galen on his shelf and referred to him on questions of medical ethics, therapies, diagnoses and principles,” says Professor Philip van der Eijk at Newcastle University, who is leading the project. The texts were only available either in Galen’s original Greek or in Latin translation, but since these two languages were the mainstay of an English education, this was no obstacle to physicians of the time.

Today, however, Latin and Greek are no longer an essential part of the school curriculum, putting Galen’s writings – one of our richest and liveliest sources of information about philosophy, religion and medicine in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as what it was like to live there – beyond the reach of most people.

To address this problem and enable lay readers and specialists alike to enjoy and learn from Galen’s writings, Professor van der Eijk has been awarded a Wellcome Trust programme grant to translate his most important and influential works into English. The project, ‘Towards a Galen in English’, aims to provide a coordinated series of English translations in a uniform format, which will be accompanied by introductions, explanatory notes, bibliographies, glossaries and indices. This will be the first time that many of Galen’s treatises have been translated into English or indeed any modern language.

A medieval manuscript containing one of Galen’s most important works, Methodus medendi.

A medieval manuscript containing one of Galen’s most important works, Methodus medendi.


Why did the works of a Greek physician living in Rome in the second century CE have such an enormous and lasting influence on Western medicine?

One reason is the sheer volume of work he produced, of which probably over a third has survived. The surviving treatises together comprise around three million words – equivalent to 20 volumes of an encyclopedia. In them, he comes across as a powerful and engaging personality. “It’s easy to engage with him. Galen speaks to us vividly and directly,” says Professor van der Eijk.

Another reason for Galen’s influence on science is his comprehensiveness: his writings examine every area of medicine, including anatomy, psychiatry, reproduction, diet and pharmaceutical interventions. He always brought a strict theoretical rigour to bear on his experimental investigations. “Galen’s father was an architect, which was a rigorous discipline requiring a good grasp of mathematics, and he wanted to develop the same intellectual rigour in his son,” says Professor van der Eijk. After a dream in which the god of medicine and healing, Asclepius, commanded him to send his son to study medicine, he enrolled the 16-year-old Galen in Pergamon’s prestigious school, dedicated to the god.

After his father’s death, Galen travelled throughout Greece, and to Cyprus, Crete, Smyrna (in what is now Turkey) and Egypt, studying under different teachers and so broadening and deepening his education. As a result of this extensive and varied learning, he was deeply versed in all the different philosophical and scientific ideas of his age as well as those from earlier times.

Miniature from 15th-century manuscript in Dresden: Galen, assistant and scribe in an apothecary’s shop.

Miniature from 15th-century manuscript in Dresden: Galen, assistant and scribe in an apothecary’s shop.

Indeed, he had a great admiration for many of the older sources he studied, including Hippocrates, ‘the father of medicine’, who had established medicine as a discipline in its own right, distinct from philosophy and religion, 500 years previously. Galen read them intensively, quoted them, and synthesised and summarised their work. His accounts of the ancient sources are sometimes all that survived of them.

His use of tradition remained independent, however. “Galen wasn’t just an uncritical receptacle. He has his own view and expresses his own judgement in strong terms,” says Professor van der Eijk. “Despite his enormous admiration for Hippocrates, he still criticises him for being wrong or not knowing something.” Through his critiques, Galen added to and deepened the body of traditional thought, as well as preserving it.

He retained the rigorous philosophical approach to problem-solving he had learned in his youth throughout his life, applying it not only to his work but also to himself and the way he lived his life. “Galen believed you need to be a philosopher to be a good doctor and a good person,” says Professor van der Eijk. “He believed you need philosophy to know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what your limitations are.”

Gladiators and Rome

Following his travels, Galen returned to his birthplace, Pergamon in Greece, where he worked as a physician to the gladiators. These armed combatants fought each other and wild animals to the death to entertain the crowds in Pergamon’s arena. At the time it was illegal to dissect a human cadaver, so the deep wounds they suffered gave Galen his only window into the inside of the human body. The attention he paid to their wounds is likely to be one of the reasons that so many more survived under his care than under previous physicians.

After a few years in Pergamon, Galen set off on his travels once again, arriving in Rome in 162 CE. His success in treating a local fever shortly after his arrival led to an introduction to the Imperial Court, and he became physician to Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus. “Galen didn’t think highly of Commodus, but Marcus Aurelius was a more philosophical and civilised emperor; it was a good match of minds,” says Professor van der Eijk.

It was here that he was to produce the bulk of his writings. Much as he valued a philosophical approach, Galen also believed that empirical evidence was critical – theories should be tested against reality. As well as visiting numerous patients and gaining strong clinical experience, he carried out experiments in dissection and medicine, his unquenchable curiosity keeping him always at the forefront of knowledge.

From Opera omnia, dissection of a pig.

From Opera omnia, dissection of a pig.

As he couldn’t dissect humans under the laws of his time, Galen turned instead to animals he believed were similar, such as apes, pigs and oxen. Many of his dissections were performed in public, to prove a point or/and refute a challenge, offering gory entertainment to the avid crowds of ancient Rome as he severed a live animal’s artery to show that blood, not air, flowed through it.

In his medical practice, Galen looked closely at the impact of food and diet on people’s health, and at how they could prevent and treat disease, prefiguring their importance in medicine today two thousand years ahead of time. “He made drugs of plants, herbs, metals and minerals in his kitchen, and wrote hundreds of pages about them. His recipes are very specific – covering how much of each ingredient should be used and how long it should boil for,” says Professor van der Eijk. “He also taught patients about their health, which was very unusual for his time. He was articulate and communicative, and he shows us the power of words when dealing with patients.”

In the light of all this it’s not surprising that doctors and philosophers have always been interested in Galen – but his writings offer far more than a window onto the intellectual ideas of his time. “We’re starting to see how he worked as a writer and communicator, how he presented his ideas and got them across,” says Professor van der Eijk. “He tells lots of anecdotes, mainly of his own success stories, peppered with scathing remarks about other people’s failures, all of which gives a picture of the competitive scene of medicine in second-century Rome. He’s very engaging to read, very personal and argumentative.”

In 2009, Professor van der Eijk – Research Professor of Greek and Newcastle Director of the Northern Centre for the History of Medicine – was the first candidate from the humanities to be awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, a major international academic prize that is usually awarded to researchers in the fields of natural sciences, medicine and mathematics.

Image credits: Wellcome Images
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