Today, a story about learning and authority. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Galen was the last great
physician of the ancient world. In another age he
might have started a medical revolution; but that's
not what happened. He was born in AD 130 in
Pergamon -- a Greek province of Rome now in western
Turkey. He studied philosophy and Hippocratic
medicine. When he was 34 he went to Rome, and he
quickly found his way into the emperor's court.
Galen gave his opponents no quarter. By all
accounts he was a self-aggrandizing intellectual
street-fighter. He was also a brilliant
experimentalist and a prolific writer. About a
hundred of his 400 books have survived.
He added the missing ingredient to the 500-year-old
Hippocratic tradition. Hippocratic physicians
didn't do dissection, and they didn't like surgery
very much. In Galen's mind, the human body was to
be studied like any other machine, and he tore into
it like a kid with a broken watch.
He had a genius for diagnostic vivisection. He
began as doctor to the gladiators of Pergamon. With
access to every kind of traumatic incision, he
studied and experimented on those poor wretches. He
tinkered with blood flow, the organs in the
abdominal cavity, the layering of muscle, and the
functions of nerves.
He'd isolate organs of wounded humans or
unfortunate animals and study the flow of fluids.
He came to a fine understanding of the movement and
function of blood, air, and urine.
Galen stood as the great medical authority for over
a thousand years. But it was a static authority
that finally crumbled when modern experimental
science grew up in the 17th century.
Galen's long survival and eventual decline are
ironic. He could have created a whole new vision of
experimental medicine. Like the best
experimentalists today, he knew how to seek out his
own ignorance and let the facts speak with their
own voice. But when he wrote, he wrote with
authority. It was frozen Galenic authority, not
active Galenic method, that rang down through the
centuries. He drew attention to his conclusions --
not to the means that had created those
When Galileo and others began building a new
science based on experiments, physicians
rediscovered Galen's methods. They began to correct
his errors. And Galen began his long fall from
In the end, Galen undercut himself by his need to
be an authority. That need hid his real genius for
observation. It obscured the gift of method that
might have taken medicine far beyond the point
where Galen left it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds