The Prince of Medicine
The Prince of Medicine by Susan Mattern (OUP)
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The remarkable career of Galen of Pergamum (A.D. 129 – 216) began as a provincial medic tending to wounded gladiators in Asia Minor. It ended at the very heart of Roman power as one of a small circle of court physicians to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. This is the first ever authoritative biography of this brilliant, audacious, and profoundly influential figure. Like many Greek intellectuals living in the high Roman Empire, Galen was a prodigious polymath, writing on subjects as varied as ethics and eczema, grammar and gout. Indeed, he was highly regarded in his lifetime as much for his philosophical works as for his medical treatises, and his writings, published in twenty-two volumes, comprise one-eighth of all surviving classical Greek literature. From the later Roman Empire through the Renaissance, medical education would be based primarily on his works. Even up to the twentieth century, he would remain the single most influential figure in western medicine. Susan Mattern presents a Galen possessed of breathtaking arrogance, fierce competitiveness (he once disembowelled a live monkey and challenged the physicians in attendance to replace its organs correctly), shameless self-promotion, and lacerating wit. Not just caustic and polemical, mocking his enemies and hurling abuse at them, Galen was also a brilliant critical thinker and rhetorical strategist. He is also credited with being the first physician with a good bedside manner. Relentless in pursuit of anything that would cure the patient, he insisted on rigorous observation and experiment. Even confronting one of history’s most horrific events – a devastating outbreak of smallpox – he persevered, bearing patient witness to its predations, year after year. Including intriguing character studies of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus (of Gladiator fame), Galen’s family and close friends, several of his patients, not a few of his rivals, and the city of Rome at the apex of its power and decadence, The Prince of Medicine offers a deeply human and long-overdue portrait of one of ancient history’s most significant and engaging figures.