Medicine After the Roman Empire

The age of the Greeks and Romans was, in many ways, a golden era for scientific improvement due in part to the stability that was allowed during these two empires. Naturally, there was still instability, but relatively speaking, the Greeks and Romans’ instability was nothing compared to what was to come.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was difficult for scholars and doctors to focus exclusively on scientific advancement. This is not to say that there were no advancements. Instead, the point is that living in a world of small kingdoms, with barbarian invasions, and rampant disease made it hard to focus on scientific curiosity.

Literacy was one skill that declined considerably. It was common even for monarchs, such as Charlemagne, to lack literacy skills. Great libraries, like the one in Alexandria, Egypt, was also destroyed, leaving behind lost knowledge that had to be perhaps rediscovered in the future.

Among the books that did survive, such as writings by Galen Hippocrates, these books became the final authority on medical care. Remember that the instability of the times and the difficulty of obtaining books made it too challenging to consider questioning these two great authors.

Ancient Beliefs

Hippocrates believed that the purpose of the brain was to cool the blood. I’m afraid that’s not right; most of the body’s heat is lost through the head. In addition, the word “artery” is loosely translated as “carrying air” and the etymology of the term has nothing to do with blood. Lastly, Greeks did not believe in dissecting bodies, which may have been the source of Hippocrates speculating.

The Romans shared the Greeks’ views on dissection. However, Galen did at least dissect animals to learn about the anatomy of living things. However, Galen believed that disease was caused by an imbalance of four vital fluids: phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood. By returning these fluids to their proper balance, a person would recover. The application of this was bloodletting, in which doctors bleed people to death to bring the fluids back into balance. This is the procedure that is believed to have killed the United States’ first president, George Washington.

Middle Ages

Even though Galen encouraged physicians to study for themselves, this was generally ignored, as mentioned earlier. By the 1500s, famous medical teachers such as Jacobus Sylvius would teach students about medicine by reading aloud Galen’s writings. By this time, dissection was allowed, but it wasn’t the teacher who did the cutting of the body but rather an assistant. The teacher’s job was to continue reading the book aloud.

There were several times when the readings of Galen did not agree with the results of the dissection. For example, there were discrepancies in the number of lobes of the liver and the number of breast bone segments. Whenever such disagreement s accord Sylvius would ignore them. We have to remember that Hippocrates and Galen were considered the most outstanding physicians of their time. Even today, the tops of any field are not questioned as much as they should be.


Change is something that many people struggle with. We all have our way of doing something and generally don’t want to change even when the benefits are apparent. Therefore, it may be unreasonable to criticize the lack of progress in understanding the body when doctors lived in a context of instability and a loss of large amounts of knowledge. When things are precarious, and there is no time for curiosity, people often will stick with tried and true approaches for the security it gives them.

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