Medicine in 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. Alexandrian medicine saw research into a wide range of areas. Contrary to popular misconception, doctors there had viable ideas about many aspects of anatomy and physiology that would not become accepted for centuries.

Scribes writing in Ancient Egypt. |The library at Alexandria had many such scribes.

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.

Map of Ancient Alexandria

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.

THe Library at Alexandria

  • Was home to over 700000 scrolls. That’s the equivalent of 100000 modern books
  • It was here that Aristarchus stated the Earth revolved around the sun. That’s 1600 years before Copernicus.
  • Geometry was developed here by Euclid. The same Geometrical rules are still taught today.
  • Herophilus identified the brain as being the organ that organised the rest of the body. This is a major breakthrough.
  • It was open to scholars of any background.
  • The Library lasted for over 600 years. It was first opened in 288 BCE.

The Alexandrian library was home to many important collections. The Hippocratic Corpus could be found there, Galen studied there and wrote many of his works based on research undertaken at the library. It was the accessibility to all that led to Ancient ideas being preserved for future generations. The library was destroyed by fire in the 4th century. Many works had been copied and translated by scholars from around Europe, from the Jewish tribes and by Arabs. This meant that far from being lost, the Ancient findings and teachings about medicine were already transmitted to other places.

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.

Erasistratus of Iulis described the nervous and circulatory systems whilst at Alexandria.

Zopyrus of Alexandria created antidotes for several poisons and asked the permission of the King of Crete to test his results on convicts.

Ancient Egyptian MedicineDoctors in Ancient Egypt AlexandriaSurgery in Ancient EgyptReligion and Medicine Mummification

Medicine through time – Prehistoric Medicine – Egyptian Medicine – Greek Medicine – Roman Medicine – Medieval Medicine – Medicine in the Renaissance – Fight against Infectious Disease – Public Health in the Industrial Revolution – Modern Medicine – Revise for Medicine through time GCSE – GCSE History of Medicine resources

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