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No. 319:

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 conclusions.

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 grace.

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 work.

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Nuland, S.B., Doctors: The Biography of Medicine. New York, Vintage Books, 1988.