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Philip van der Eijk: Translating Galen

Galen of Pergamon’s extraordinarily prolific writings dominated medical science for over a millennium. Led by Philip van der Eijk a team is translating some of his most important works into English so that a wider audience can enjoy them.

Philip van der Eijk was born in the Netherlands, and received his doctorate from Leiden University, where he subsequently held a research fellowship and lectureship in Classics.

In 1994, he moved to Newcastle University to take up a Wellcome Trust University Award in the History of Medicine in the Classical World. He became Professor of Greek in 1998 and was Director of the Northern Centre for the History of Medicine from its foundation in 2003 until 2009.

In 2009, he received a Wellcome Trust Programme Grant to translate the works of Galen of Pergamon - the Greek physician to Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus, whose writings had a great influence on western medicine until well into the 17th century.

Methodus medendi
Image: A medieval manuscript containing one of Galen’s most important works, Methodus medendi. Credit: Wellcome Images

Galen's surviving treatises together comprise around three million words, equivalent to 20 volumes of an encyclopedia. They cover all areas of medicine, and are a rich source of understanding of the social, cultural and intellectual history of the early Imperial period and his in-depth critiques and analyses of the ancient sources are sometimes all that survived of them.

Yet only 25 per cent of his work is accessible in English translation, and skills in the ancient Greek and Latin required to read it are becoming ever more scarce. Professor van der Eijk and his team aim to provide a coordinated series of English translations in a uniform format, accompanied by introductions, explanatory notes, bibliographies, glossaries and indices.

Galen in an apothecary's shop
Image: Miniature from 15th-century manuscript in Dresden: Galen, assistant and scribe in an apothecary’s shop. Credit: Wellcome Images

Six volumes will launch the series, which will include some of Galen's most important and most influential works. The first two volumes are scheduled to appear in 2011 and will include Galen’s psychological writings (including the recently discovered work On the Avoidance of Grief) and his works on human nature.

In 2009, Professor van der Eijk became the first candidate from the humanities to be awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, a major international academic prize that is usually awarded to researchers in the fields of natural sciences, medicine and mathematics. He took up his position as Professor of Classics and History of Science at the Humboldt University in Berlin in January 2010.

Top image: From 'Galen studies a group of bones lying on the ground' by J Caldwall, 1796-1797. Credit: Wellcome Images

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