The Alexandrian School

"In the year 331 B.C.," wrote Kingsley, "one of the greatest intellects whose influence the world has ever felt, saw, with his eagle glance, the unrivalled advantages of the spot which is now Alexandria, and conceived the mighty project of making it the point of union of two, or rather of three worlds. In a new city named after himself, Europe, Asia and Africa were to meet and hold communion." The School of Alexandria became, after the decay of Greek culture, the centre of learning for the world, and when the Empire of Alexander the Great was subdivided, the Egyptian share fell to the first Ptolemy, who, under the direction of Aristotle, founded the Alexandrian Library, containing at first fifty thousand, and finally seven hundred thousand volumes. Every student who came to the University of Alexandria, and possessed a book of which there was not a copy in the Alexandrian Library, was compelled to present the book to the library. The first Ptolemy also fostered the study of medicine and of dissection. Eumenes likewise established a library at Pergamos. It is instructive to follow the history of the great Library of Alexandria. The greater part of the library, which contained the collected literature of Greece, Rome, India and Egypt, was housed in the famous museum in the part of Alexandria called the Brucheion. This part was destroyed by fire during the siege of Alexandria by Julius Cæsar. Mark Antony, then, at the urgent desire of Cleopatra, transferred to Alexandria the books and manuscripts from Pergamos. The other part of the library was kept at Alexandria in the Serapeum, the temple of Jupiter Serapis, and there it remained till the time of Theodosius the Great, until in 391 A.D. both temple and library were almost completely destroyed by a fanatical mob of Christians led by the Archbishop Theophilus. When Alexandria was taken by the Arabs in 641, under the Calif Omar, the destruction was completed.

Ptolemy gathered to the museum at Alexandria a number of very learned men, who lived within its walls and were provided with salaries, the whole system closely resembling a university. Grammar, prosody, mythology, astronomy and philosophy were studied, and great attention was given to the study of medicine. Euclid was the teacher of Mathematics, and Hipparchus of Alexandria was the father of Astronomy. The teaching of medicine and of astronomy was for long based upon observation of ascertained facts. The Alexandrian School endured for close upon a thousand years, and its history may be divided into two periods, namely, from 323 to 30 B.C., during the period of the Ptolemies, and from 30 B.C. to 640 A.D. The second period was distinguished for the study of speculative philosophy, and of the religious philosophy of the Gnostics, and was not a scientific period.

Julius Cæsar was not the only Roman Emperor who brought trouble upon the Alexandrian School, for the brutal Caracalla took away the salaries and privileges from the savants, and prohibited scientific exhibitions and discussions. In recent excavations in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, the ruins of a library have been discovered, and it is believed by some archæologists that Caracalla supplied this library with books and parchments from Alexandria.

The Asclepiadæ of Cos and Cnidos had discoursed upon the phenomena of disease, without attempting to demonstrate its structural relations; like the sculptors of their own age, they studied the changing expression of vital action almost wholly from an external point of view. They meddled not with the dead, for, by their own laws, no one was allowed to die within the temple. But the early Alexandrians were subject to no such restrictions; and turning to good account the discoveries of Aristotle in natural history and comparative anatomy, they undertook for the first time to describe the organization of the human frame from actual dissections.

Thus there was inaugurated at Alexandria the Anatomic Period of Medicine, which lasted till Egypt came under the sway of the Romans. Medical practice became so flourishing at Alexandria that three great specialities were established, namely, Surgery, Pharmacy, and Dietetics, and a great variety of operations were performed. Lithotomy was much practised by specialists. A foul murder was perpetrated by lithotomists at the instigation of Diodotus, the guardian of Antiochus, son of Alexander, King of Syria (150 B.C.), young Antiochus, at the age of 10, being done to death under the pretence that he had a stone in his bladder.

About 150 B.C. a sect called the Essenes was established for the study of curative and poisonous substances. The members were not all physicians, by any means, for one of the chief was King Mithridates, who invented the remedy known as mithridaticum. This celebrated nostrum of antiquity is said to have been a confection of twenty leaves of rue, a few grains of salt, two walnuts, and two figs, intended to be taken every morning and followed by a draught of wine.

Two famous physicians and anatomists, Herophilus (335-280 B.C.) and Erasistratus (280 B.C.) took part in the medical teaching at Alexandria in the early days of that seat of learning. It is recorded that they did not confine their investigations to the dissection of the dead, but also vivisected criminals. Cleombrotus, another physician at this school, was sent for to attend King Antiochus, and was rewarded with a hundred talents, equal to about £15,000 sterling.

There were several physicians of the name of Chrysippos connected with the Alexandrian School. One was physician to Ptolemy Soter, the King of Egypt, and tutor to Erasistratus. This Chrysippos introduced the practice of emptying a limb of blood before amputation, according to the recent method of Esmarch, and is said to have employed vapour baths in the treatment of dropsy.

In Alexandria, anatomy was properly studied.
Herophilus made many anatomical discoveries, and some of the names he gave to parts of the body are now in use, for instance, torcular Herophili, calamus scriptorius, and duodenum. He described the connection between the nerves and the brain, and the various parts of the brain, and recognized the essential difference between motor and sensory nerves, although he thought the former arose in the membranes and the latter in the substance of the brain. He believed that the fourth ventricle was the seat of the soul. He attributed to the heart the pulsations of the arteries, but thought that the pulmonary veins conveyed air from the lungs to the left side of the heart, and he observed the lacteals without determining their function. Herophilus operated upon the liver and spleen, and looked upon the latter as of little consequence in the animal economy. He had a good knowledge of obstetric operations. His ideas in relation to pathology did not proceed much further than the belief that disease was due to corruption of the humors. He was more scientific and accurate when he taught that paralysis results from a defect in the nerves.

Erasistratus studied under Chrysippos (or Chrysippus), and under Metrodorus, the son-in-law of Aristotle. Herophilus had been a student at Cos, Erasistratus at Cnidos, so that the teaching of the two great Greek medical schools was introduced into Alexandria. Xenophon, of Cos, one of the followers of Erasistratus, first resorted to the ligation of vessels for the arrest of hæmorrhage, although for many years in later times this important practice was lost through the neglect of the study of the history of medicine. Erasistratus and Herophilus, it is sad to relate, considered that vivisection of human beings, as well as dissection of the dead, was a necessary part of medical education, and believed that the sufferings of a few criminals did not weigh against the benefit likely to accrue to innocent people, who could be relieved or cured of disease and suffering as the result of the knowledge gained by dissection of the living. This cruel and nefarious practice was followed "so that the investigators could study the particular organs during life in regard to position, colour, form, size, disposition, hardness, softness, smoothness, and superficial extent, their projection and curvatures."

The followers of these teachers, unfortunately, became very speculative and fond of discussions of a fruitless kind, and, according to Pliny, it was easier "to sit and listen quietly in the schools than to be up and wandering over the deserts, and to seek out new plants every day,"and so, in the third century before Christ, the school of Empiricism was established, the system of which resembled the older Scepticism. It rested upon the "Empiric tripod," namely, accident, history and analogy. This meant that discoveries were made by accident, knowledge was accumulated by the recollection of previous cases, and treatment adopted which had been found suitable in similar circumstances. Philinus of Cos, a pupil of Herophilus, declared that all the anatomy he had learned from his master did not help him in the least to cure diseases. Philinus, according to Galen, founded the Empirici, the first schismatic sect in medicine. Celsus wrote of this sect that they admit that evident causes are necessary, but deprecate inquiry into them because Nature is incomprehensible. This is proved because the philosophers and physicians who have spent so much labour in trying to search out these occult causes cannot agree amongst themselves. If reasoning could make physicians, the philosophers should be most successful practitioners, as they have such abundance of words. If the causes of diseases were the same in all places, the same remedies ought to be used everywhere. Relief from sickness is to be sought from things certain and tried, that is from experience, which guides us in all other arts. Husbandmen and pilots do not reason about their business, but they practise it. Disquisitions can have no connection with medicine, because physicians whose opinions have been directly opposed to one another have equally restored their patients to health; they did not derive their methods of cure from studying the occult causes about which they disputed, but from the experience they had of the remedies which they employed upon their patients. Medicine was not first discovered in consequence of reasoning, but the theory was sought for after the discovery of medicine. Does reason, they ask, prescribe the same as experience, or something different? If the same, it must be needless; if different, it must be mischievous.

In the third and second centuries before Christ, many physicians wrote commentaries on diseases and attacked the teaching of Hippocrates. Among these, Serapion of Alexandria, an Empiric who lived in the third century before Christ, is noteworthy for having first used sulphur in the treatment of skin diseases, and Heraclides wrote on strangulated hernia. Serapion added somewhat to the system of Philinus, and was responsible for introducing the principle of analogy into the system of Empiricism. The foundation of Empiricism marked the decline of the medical school of Alexandria. We are indebted to Celsus for a full description of the teaching of this sect, and, at the same time, for an exposure of its fallacies. Serapion was a convert from the school of Cos, which was the stronghold of medical dogmatism, and, like nearly all apostates, he was consumed with animosity and bitterness towards those with whom he had formerly been in agreement. Cnidos was the stronghold of the Empirics.


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