Galen, Avicenna and Hippocrates, Canon of Medicine

Reference Type:
early 15th century
This image from an early fifteenth-century medical book written in Latin reflects the respect and admiration in which physicians were held at this time. They are dressed in a formal and noble style—Avicenna even holds a staff and an orb and wears a crown, as a king or emperor might have done. Each of them holds a book in his lap—unlike most of their contemporaries they could read, so were respected as men of learning and wisdom. They were also men of science—Hippocrates holds a beaker probably filled with urine, which was used to help diagnose patients. Hippocrates (c. 460 BCE – c. 377 BCE) moved medicine away from the religious realm by advocating that illnesses were caused by physical determinants derived from the four humors rather than possession by evil spirit or disfavor of the gods. He advocated that the four bodily fluids—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—needed to be balanced. Imbalance resulted in illness. He was known as a healer, saving the king of Macedonia from tuberculosis and fighting the plague for several years in Athens. He taught medicine to many students, including his two sons, and wrote numerous treatises. The collection of his writings, called the Hippocratic Corpus, is the oldest surviving set of medical books (although it seems that all were not written by Hippocrates himself). Some were written for physicians, others for pharmacists, and some for laymen. None of them contain the entire Hippocratic Oath and some of them contradict what is said in others. Galen (c. 131- c. 201) was born and lived in Turkey, which at the time was an intellectual center of the Roman Empire. Serving as physician to the Roman court, he advocated experimentation and reasoning (for example, through controlled studies of the spinal cord and kidney function), and integrated knowledge of anatomy into the theory of the four humors. Because human dissection was forbidden, studies of anatomy were performed on apes, which led to misassumptions about human anatomy that lasted until Vesalius’ time. Galen was also a philosopher, and often incorporated the ideas of Plato and Aristotle into his medical observations. Like Hippocrates, he wrote numerous treatises on medicine, and was considered the authority on medical theory for almost 1400 years. In Europe’s so-called Dark Ages, centers of knowledge moved east. Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (973-1037) was a Persian physician who wrote a standard medical textbook based on the work of Hippocrates and Galen, which was used through the mid-seventeeth century. Primarily known as a philosopher, but knowledgeable in many fields, he completed the Canon of Medicine in 1025. Consisting of five books, it presented an organized summary of all medical knowledge of his time, both from the Western world and from China. It was written in Arabic, but eventually translated (with commentaries) into Persian, Latin, German, English, French, Hebrew, and Chinese, and was used for teaching medicine in Europe until the nineteenth century. Notes by Dr. Linda Pessar and Mariann Smith
Art of Medicine
History of Medicine