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Galen & Circulation
by Matthew Megill, Dartmouth College

Why did it take Western science until the seventeenth century, to discover the process of blood circulation? Why do we still think of the heart as an emotional organ, both in our poetry, and in our Valentine's Day cards? Many answers could be given to these two questions, but one partial explanation can surely be traced to the research of Galen.

Galen was a second century A.D. Greek physician, probably the most respected Greek doctor after Hippocrates, and a man who knew a great deal about the heart, as we may see in many preserved writings, such as his work On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato. Many have wondered why Galen failed to recognize the heart's true role as a circulatory pump. The question must be raised, because, from a strictly scientific perspective, he could have, perhaps even should have, discovered circulation. He had all the pieces that were needed, and which, indeed, William Harvey used to perceive the true process in 1628. Yet despite suggestive evidence, Galen failed to pursue the idea of the blood's circulation, or to try the simple calculations which lent Harvey such success 1400 years later. Galen was not dumb, and we must ask if anything prevented him from making the logical leap to an understanding of blood as a reusable transport vehicle, from a traditional conception of blood as a consumable fuel, much like the water that irrigated agricultural fields.

My thesis is that Galen's philosophical opposition to the Stoic view of the heart distracted him from understanding the heart's role as a circulatory pump. In defending this view, I will first describe the scientific pointers, which might have led Galen to a discovery of circulation. Next, I will discuss what I consider to be the primary cause of Galen's failure: his disagreement with the Stoics, and their spokesman, Chrysippus, over the nature of the soul.

Many experimentally verified facts might have directed Galen to the heart's circulatory function. C.R.S. Harris has examined the pieces of the puzzle that Galen held, and concluded that they could have led him to an accurate understanding (266-397). Galen knew a great deal about the heart and how closely it was linked to the pulsing arteries (On Anatomical Procedures, 7.16 as cited in Harris, 378-9). He knew that the arteries and the veins ran parallel, and were connected (Harris, 364). He knew that both contained blood, though blood of different types (PHP, 6.8).

 

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