Physician (c.305 BC – c.240 BC)
Erasistratus was a physician of the Alexandrian era, who, together with Herophilus founded the School of Anatomy of Alexandria. A pioneer in observing and describing the human anatomy and its pathology, Erasistratus’ multiple groundbreaking discoveries in many different fields of medicine as well as his methods of diagnosis and treatment of human diseases secured him a position next to Hippocrates as one of the greatest physicians in the history of medicine.
Erasistratus worked in many places throughout the Greek world, most notably in Syria, where he served as the physician of Emperor Seleucos I Nicator. Undoubtedly his most prolific years, however, were in Alexandria, Egypt, where he worked in the School of Anatomy in the Museum of Alexandria. There he taught anatomy, performed some of the first public anatomic dissections together with Herophilus and made numerous revolutionary discoveries in anatomy.
His studies on the nervous system are extensive. He established the nature of the human brain as the center of mental processes, described its gyri, the ventricles and the cerebellum. He distinguished the motor from sensory neurons and studied extensively the cranial nerves. On the cardiovascular system Erasistratus discovered the tricuspid valve and described its function. He possessed knowledge on the heart’s role as the center of the cardiovascular system as well as the flow of blood through the veins. Moreover, Erasistratus knew about the existence of amastomoses between arteries and veins, established the function of the lymph vessels, which he referred to as “white vessels”, described the excretion of bile from the gallbladder but did not explain its role and was the first to denote the function of the epiglottis, as well as prove that fluids did not pass from the trachea.
Considered as the father of comparative anatomy, Erasistratus also performed dissections on dead animals so as to compare their anatomy to that of humans. He is considered not only the founder of experimental physiology but also of pathologic anatomy. His gross pathologic descriptions of pericarditis, cirrhotic liver, hydrops, jaundice as well as of intestinal and bladder diseases were the first recorded in history and formed the basis of the science of modern pathology.
As excellent as Erasistratus was in describing and teaching anatomy, equally capable he was as a physician in diagnosing and treating diseases. Working primarily as an internist and a surgeon, Erasistratus perfomed paracentesis for the drainage of ascites, invented a sigmoid catheter for the decompression of the urinary bladder as well as a device used for artificial abortions. He restrained from using too many drugs, confining in local herbs and remedies, diuretics and induced emesis, while giving special importance to the healing powers of nutrition and hygiene. He wrote a wide range of books of which only the titles survive. Some of them where Anatomies, On Causes, On Fevers, On the Diseases of the Abdomen, On Hydrops, On Paresis and Paralysis, On Gout and On Digestion.
Even though he was against many of Hippocrates’ theories and notions, Erasistratus condemned superstition and always interpreted man’s functions and illeness with logic. He had numerous students who themselves became notable physicians. Following his death, Erasistratus was recognized as one of the greatest teachers of anatomy and as a prodigious researcher whose innovations helped in the understaning of the human body and the evolution of medicine.
- Pournaropoulos. G.K. “Erasistratos”. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Passas I. Athens: 1946. Print.
- “Erasistratos”. Suda Lexicon. Georgiades: 2010. Print.