Herophilus and Erasistratus: The Butchers of Alexandria


Thousands of years ago, during the golden era of scientific enquiry in the 3rd century BCE, our hometown Alexandria of Ptolemaic Egypt was the world’s greatest center of learning and scholarship. Alexandria was a hub for knowledge and discovery, home to The Royal Library of Alexandria; one of the largest and most significant libraries of the Ancient World, and the Alexandrian Museum, which acted as the world’s chief medical research center.

Two of the city’s most influential medical investigators were Herophilus and Erasistratus, who together made incredible breakthroughs in the fields of anatomy and medicine. Despite their significant contributions, their legacy is shrouded with great controversy and grave accusations; they were accused of the unspeakable: performing vivisections on live humans.

Herophilus, also known as “The Father of Anatomy”, was born in 335 BCE. in the town of Chalcedon, Asia Minor, and is believed to have lived until 255 BCE. He fled to Alexandria to begin practicing medicine and commence his research. He took deep interest in general anatomy, and soon realized that the only way he could truly study human anatomy was by becoming the first person to perform systematic dissection of the human body, presumably on cadavers.

In Alexandria, Herophilus lived in an environment in which the dissection of human corpses was not met with general disapproval and religious taboos. His method proved to be a potent research tool, affording him unparalleled advantages over previous students of human anatomy who had formulated their insights mainly on indirect evidence and speculation.

Through his fervent interest in the subject, Herophilus’s discoveries made him an acclaimed medical practitioner. Apart from plying his trade, he penned down at least eleven treaties, which were unfortunately lost during the great fire in the Ancient Library of Alexandria, where his works were believed to be stored in 391. However, his anatomical knowledge passed down to the generations, providing vital input towards understanding the brain, eye, liver, and reproductive organs.

Herophilus has been credited with giving the best description of the reproductive system up to the Middle Ages. It was his work on the nervous system, however, that was considered to have been the most important. He is believed to be one of the first to differentiate nerves from blood vessels and tendons, and to realize that nerves convey neural impulses.

Realizing that the network of nerves spread throughout the body could be traced back to the brain, Herophilus concluded that the brain was the controlling organ in Man, through which “all bodily actions are accomplished”. This discovery went against Aristotle’s assertion that the heart was the source of human intellect and reason, which would have been the commonly held belief at the time. Herophilus’ remarkable work effectively superseded that of his predecessors; later medical writers such as Roman doctor Galen of Pergamon adopted his interpretation over Aristotle’s.

Erasistratus, Herophilus’ younger contemporary and student, was born in 304 BCE, on the island of Cos. Before travelling to Alexandria and joining Herophilus, he served as royal physician at the court of Seleucus I in Mesopotamia. He made remarkable progress in anatomy, complementing Herophilus’ teachings and research, and describing the brain even more accurately, distinguishing the cerebrum from the cerebellum and sensory from motor nerves.

Erasistratus was also the first to dispel the notion that nerves are hollow and filled with pneuma (air); instead, he averred that they are solid, consisting of spinal marrow. In his account of the heart and its function, he distinguished between pulmonary and systemic circulation; he appears to have been very close to discovering the circulation of the blood, a feat eventually achieved by English physician William Harvey in 1628.

In the centuries that followed Herophilus and Erasistratus’ work, questions arose over the ethicality of their methods, and stories began to circulate that the subjects they dissected were cut up whilst still alive. Later physicians, such as Cornelius Celsus and Galen charged both Herophilus and Erasistratus with performing vivisection on condemned criminals awarded to them by the rulers of Alexandria.

Celsus, who did not witness the vivisections, wrote 250 years after the death of Herophilus that the criminals were dissected alive “while they were yet breathing”. Tertullian, writing in the next century, called Herophilus a “butcher”, implying that he cut up living people. It has been theorized that accusations of vivisections is the main reason why Herophilus has not received as much recognition for his scientific investigations of the human body as Hippocrates, Galen, or Vesalius.

Whether or not Herophilus and Erasistratus ever actually vivisected human subjects, the gruesome charges made against them helped ensure the practice of dissection was prohibited in the West until the Renaissance, when social and scientific changes allowed anatomists to practice on human corpses once again. 

The remarkable research that took place in Alexandria during the third century BCE was therefore a unique event in the history of medicine and the Ancient World. The discoveries made by Herophilus and Erasistratus, thus, remained the pinnacle of anatomical knowledge for 1500 years.

*Published in SCIplanet printed magazine, Summer 2017 Issue.


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