Pergamum: "Is this Where It All Began? And Other Questions"


09 November 2009

My Dear Doctor Friends,

Cc: Family and Friends and my Fellow Patients

For Medicine in the Western World, is this where it all began? At the Asclepion in the North Aegean region of ancient Pergamum?

Here's a dose of Greek mythology:

The son of Apollo, Asclepius, the god of healing was a famous physician. His mother, Coronis, a princess of Thessaly, died when he was an infant. Apollo entrusted the child's education to Chiron, a centaur, who taught Asclepius the healing arts. Asclepius, when grown, became so skilled in surgery and the use of medicinal plants that he could even restore the dead back to life. Hades, ruler of the dead, became alarmed at this and complained to Zeus. How did Zeus handle the complaint?


Here's a potion of ancient history:

Asclepieum was a sanctuary and a healing center built in the name of the god of healing, Asclepius. It was similar to the one in Epidauros in Greece. Although this place was set up in the 4th Century BCE, it had its peak in the Roman period.

The healing center, Asclepieum, had been something very similar to a modern natural healing clinic. Patients were given exercises, drugs, herbal remedies, or could take the honey cure, drink the waters of the spring or be treated by suggestion. They could walk among the trees and be calmed by the scent of pine. Treatments also included mud baths and massage. Diagnosis was often by dream analysis. Over the gate had been inscribed the words: "In the name of the Gods, Death is forbidden to enter". *

Pergamum's center came to the fore under Galen (CE 131-210) who was born here and studied in Alexandria, Greece and Asia Minor, before setting up shop as a physician to Pergamum's gladiators. Recognized as perhaps the greatest early physician, Galen added considerably to knowledge of the circulatory and nervous systems and also systematized medical theory. **

Galen dissected many animals, particularly goats, pigs and monkeys, to demonstrate how different muscles are controlled at different levels of the spinal cord. He also showed that the brain controls the voice. Galen showed that arteries carry blood. What 400-year-old belief about arteries did Galen disprove?

Galen was also highly praised in his time as a philosopher. He closely followed the view of the philosopher Aristotle that nothing in nature is superfluous. Galen's principal contribution to philosophic thought was the concept that G-d's purposes can be understood by examining nature.

Galen's observations in anatomy remained his most enduring contribution. His medical writings were translated by 9th Century Arab scholars and his work was the basis for Western medicine well into the 16th Century. *

On the grounds of the Asclepion are a library, a Roman theater and the Temple of Telesphorus, another god of medicine. Patients slept in the temple hoping that Telesphorus would send a cure or a diagnosis in a dream.

Patients also slept among snakes. Indeed, our universal modern medical symbol, borrowed from the ancient doctors, is a snake wound around a staff – the Rod of Asclepius (not to be confused with the Caduceus with two snakes and wings – a symbol of Mercury). What physical attribute of a snake became the doctors' philosophical basis of curing disease?

One more shot of mythology: Asclepius had five daughters and four sons, all devoted to medicine. Two of his daughters are known to us all. One is famous for her universal remedies. The other is a specialist in cleanliness and disease prevention. What are their names, please?

You don't mind if I play with your head a little, do you?

Finally, many years ago, during my own ancient history, I was a professional "helping" or "change agent" commonly referred to as a "Consultant."  Do you know the definition of a "consultant?"  I specialized in the hotel industry. One hotel General Manager in Philadelphia was a saturnine sort, but his secretary had a sense of humor. She named me for the appropriate time, place and activity. She called me:

"Doctor J"

I stayed at the Gobi Pension in the heart of Bergama.  Mr Gobi is a charming host.

PS Bergama is more than a one-site town:

High above the town is the Acropolis with several temple ruins, and built into the hillside a 10,000-seat theater with a brilliant view of the town. From the Acropolis, the huge 2nd Century Red Basilica appears below. The Basilica was built as a temple to Egyptian gods and later was a Christian cathedral. I am wondering why I found several 100-year-old Jewish gravestones on the grounds.


** "Turkey" Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. 2009. pg 214

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