Alexandria’s role in Ancient Medicine

Alexandria

The city of Alexandria is a lasting tribute to Alexander the Great. It plays an important role in the development of medicine in both the Greek and Roman eras. Alexandria was home to libraries and was a great seat of learning in the Ancient World.

Scribes writing in ancient Alexandria
Scribes writing in ancient Alexandria

Alexander the Great not only had a talent on the battlefield (he created a huge empire between 334 and 326 BC) but was also a man who appreciated science and philosophy. A lasting tribute to this is the City of Alexandria, in modern day Egypt. This city was unique in ancient times as it provided physicians and doctors with opportunities that had previously been denied.

An artists impression of Alexandria in ancient times.
An artists impression of Alexandria in ancient times.

The city had a massive library that contained the works of all of the greatest philosophers of the day, such as Aristotle and Plato. These men argued that the soul of a person left the body upon death and that, therefore, dissection of the body was permissible. The influence of these philosophers was such that dissection was, for the first time, allowed to happen. This allowed doctors to see the workings of the body and must have led to a greater understanding of physiology. For a short period of time the dissection of LIVE people, criminals who were condemned to death, was allowed to happen. This is a practice called vivisection

These practices led to the development of theories of a nervous system (Herophilus) which were later developed and tested by doctors such as Erastistratus.

Herophilus of Chalcedon conducted dissection whilst working in Alexandria. It is thought that he may also have performed vivisection. Vivisection is the same as dissection but on live creatures. It is thought that vivisection was practised on condemned criminals.