Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities

© 1999 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 1999 Ancient Alexandrian Medicine

Soon after the death of Aristotle (d. 322 BC) and his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC), a great medical school was founded in Egypt at the court of King Ptolemy, at his capital, Alexandria, at the mouth of the Nile. The King's main cultural creations were the Alexandrian Library* and the Museum (Sanctuary of the Muses), which installed Greek learning in a new Egyptian environment -- Archimedes, Euclid, and the astronomer Ptolemy were soon to teach there. The Library became a wonder of the scholarly world, eventually containing, it was said, 700,000 manuscripts, and other facilities including an observatory, zoological gardens, lecture halls and rooms for research.

* Part of the Library was wrecked by fire in 48 BC during riots sparked by the arrival of Julius Caesar. Much later, Christian leaders encouraged the destruction of the Temple of Muses. As legend has it, in 415 AD the last resident scholar, the female mathematician Hypatia, was hauled out of the Museum by Christian fanatics and beaten to death (or her flesh was ripped off using clamshells, by another account). The 7th century Muslim conquest of the city resulted in the final destruction of the Library.

The two earliest teachers at the Alexandrian medical school were also its greatest -- Herophilus of Chalcedon (ca. 330-260 BC) and his contemporary, Erasistratus of Chios (ca. 330-255 BC). Their writings having been lost, we know about them only through later physicians.

Herophilus was the first to dissect cadavers in public. He was a student of Praxagoras of Cos (fl. 340 BC), who had improved Aristotelian anatomy by distinguishing arteries from veins, but who saw the arteries as air tubes, similar to the trachea and bronchi, a common error because arteries are devoid of blood in corpses. Herophilus observed that the coats of arteries were much thicker than those of the veins, thus he speculated that the arteries were filled not with air but with blood. Herophilus wrote at least eleven treatises, discovering and naming the prostate and the duodenum (from the Greek for twelve fingers, the length of gut he found). He also wrote on the pulse as a diagnostic guide and on therapeutics, ophthalmology, dietetics, and midwifery. He recognized the brain as the central organ of the nervous system and the seat of intelligence, extending the knowledge of the parts of the brain, certain of which still bear titles translated from those given by him. He was the first to grasp the nature of the nerves, which he distinguished as motor and sensory, though he did not separate them clearly from tendons.

Erasistratus surmised that every organ is formed of a threefold system of "vessels" -- veins, arteries, and nerves, dividing indefinitely. These, plaited together, were postulated to make up the tissues. In the brain, Erasistratus observed convolutions, noting that they were more elaborate in man than in animals and associating this with higher intelligence. He distinguished between cerebrum and cerebellum, and is often regarded as an early mechanist because of his model of bodily processes -- for instance, digestion involved the stomach grinding food. He was opposed to intrusive remedies such as venesection, and his favorite therapeutic measures were regulated exercise, diet, and the vapor bath -- very much in the Hippocratic tradition.


Last updated on 5 February 2003