Sunday, August 12, 2007

Erasistratus of Chios (304-250 BCE)

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Greek anatomist who continued the systematic investigation of anatomy begun by Herophilus in Alexandria. Anatomical knowledge had its beginnings very early in the history of the race. Animal sacrifices led to a knowledge of animal anatomy which was readily applied to man. The art of embalming also necessitated a knowledge of the position of blood vessels and certain organic relations. Even Homer used many terms which indicate a much deeper knowledge of human structures than might be expected thus early. The first real development of anatomy as a science, however, did not come until the time of Hippocrates of Cos, about 400 B.C. The Grecian Father of Medicine knew the bones well, probably because of the ready opportunities for their study to be found in tombs, but did not know the distinction between veins and arteries, and uses the term artiria in reference to the trachea. He used the term nerve to signify a sinew or tendon. Until the time of Aristotle, about 330 B.C., no additions were made to anatomical knowledge. There seems to be no doubt that this Grecian philosopher frequently dissected animals. His description of the aorta and its branches is surprisingly correct. This is the first time in the history of anatomy that the word aorta, Greek aorti, a knapsack, was used. His knowledge of the nerves was almost as little as that of Hippocrates, but he was thoroughly familiar with the internal viscera, and he distinguishes the jejunum or empty portion of the small intestine; the caecum, or blind gut, so called because it is a sort of cul-de-sac; the colon, and the sigmoid flexure. The word rectum is the literal translation of his description of the straight process of the bowel to the anus. A contemporary of Aristotle, Praxagoras of Cos, was the first who distinguished the arteries from the veins and spoke of the former as air vessels because after death they always contained only air.

All of this knowledge had been gained from dissections of animals. It was at Alexandria in the beginning of the third century before Christ that two Greek philosophers, Herophilus and Erasistratus, made the first dissections of the human body. None of their writings have come down to us. We know what they discovered, however, from the references to them made by Galen, Oribasius, and other medical writers. Erasistratus discovered the heart valves and called them, from their forms, sigmoid and tricuspid. He studied the convolutions of the brain and recognized the nature of nerves which he described as coming from the brain. He seems even to have appreciated the difference between nerves of motion and sensation. There is a claim that he discovered the lymph vessels in the mesentery also. Herophilus applied the name of twelve inch portion of the intestine to the part which has since been called the duodenum. He described the straight venous sinus within the skull which is still sometimes called by his name. He is also said to have given the name of calamus scriptorius to the linear furrow at the lower part of the fourth ventricle.

Nearly three hundred years passed before another great name in anatomy occurred, namely, that of Celsus, who saw the difference between the trachea and the esophagus, described the size, positions, and relations of the diaphragm as well as the relations of the various organs to one another, and added much to the knowledge of the lungs and the heart. He knew most of the minute points in osteology with almost modern thoroughness. The sutures and most of the foramina of the skull and the upper and lower jaw-bones with the teeth, he describes very perfectly. He mentions many small holes in the nasal cavities and evidently knew the ethmoid bone. He even seemed to have distinguished the semi-circular canals of the car. After Celsus, who lived during the half-century before Christ, the next important name is that of Galen, who was born about A.D. 130. Galen was not only an investigator but a collator of all the medical knowledge down to his time. His work was destined to rule anatomical science down to Vesalius and even beyond it, that is, for nearly fourteen hundred years. Galen's osteology is almost perfect. His knowledge of muscles was more incomplete, but it was far beyond that of any of his predecessors. He did not add much to the previous knowledge with regard to blood vessels, though he made the cardinal demonstration that in living animals arteries contained not air but blood. His description of the veins and arteries, however, is rather confused and here his knowledge is most imperfect. His additions to the knowledge of the nervous system are very important. He described the falx and exposed by successive sections the ventricles and the choroid plexus. In general, his description of the gross anatomy of the brain is quite advanced. [Adapted from Catholic Encyclopedia (1907)]


Please browse our Amazon list of titles about Greek and Roman medicines. For rare and hard to find works we recommend our Alibris list of titles about Greek medicine.


Greek Medicine: A Source Book
Library of Canada: Chios Island
Library of Congress: Erasistratus of Chios
Other Library Catalogs: Erasistratus
Books from Alibris: Greek Medicine

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