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Herophilos (Ancient Greek: Ἡρόφιλος), sometimes Latinized Herophilus (335-280 BC), was a Greek physician. Born in Chalcedon, he spent the majority of his life in Alexandria. He was the first scientist to systematically perform scientific dissections of human cadavers and is deemed to be the first anatomist. Herophilos recorded his findings in over nine works which are all lost. Together with Erasistratus he is regarded as a founder of the great medical school of Alexandria.



Herophilos was born in Chalcedon in Asia Minor (now Kadiköy, Turkey), in c. 335 BC. Not much is known about his early life other than that he moved to Alexandria at a fairly young age to begin his schooling.

As an adult Herophilos was a teacher, and an author of at least nine texts ranging from his book titled, On Pulses, which explored the flow of blood from the heart through the arteries, to his book titled Midwifery, which discussed duration and phases of childbirth. In Alexandria, he practiced dissections, often publicly so that he could explain what he was doing to those who were fascinated. Erasistratus was his contemporary. Together, they worked at a medical school in Alexandria that is said to have drawn people from all over the ancient world due to Herophilos' fame.

His works are lost but were much quoted by Galen in the second century AD. Herophilos was the first scientist to systematically perform scientific dissections of human cadavers. Dissections of human cadavers were banned in most places at the time, except for Alexandria. Celsus in 'De Medicina' and the church leader Tertullian state that he vivisected at least 600 live prisoners (although it should be noted that Tertullian lived several centuries after Herophilos and may have had reasons to discredit what he saw as heresy).[1]

After the death of Herophilos c. 280 BC, his anatomical findings lived on in the works of other important physicians, notably Galen. Even so dissections were performed in the following centuries and medieval times only few insights were added. Dissecting with the purpose to gain knowledge about human anatomy started again in early modern times (Vesalius), more than 1600 years after Herophilos' death.


Herophilos is thought to be one of the founders of the scientific method. He had introduced the experimental method to medicine, for he considered it essential to found knowledge on empirical bases. For that he was criticized by Galen for whom the experimental method contradicted rationality.

Conventional medicine of the time revolved around the theory of the four humors in which an imbalance between bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood led to sickness or disease. Veins were believed to be filled with blood and a mixture air and water. Through Herophilos' dissections he was able to deduce that veins only carried blood. After studying the flow of blood, he was able to differentiate between arteries and veins. He noticed that as blood flowed through arteries, they pulsed or rhythmically throbbed. He worked out standards for measuring a pulse and could use these standards to aid him in diagnosing sicknesses or diseases. To measure this pulse, he made a water clock.

His work on blood and its movements led him to study and analyze the brain. He proposed that the brain housed the intellect rather than the heart. He was the first person to differentiate between the cerebrum and the cerebellum and to place individual importance on each portion. He looked more in depth into the network of nerves located in the cranium. He described the optic nerve and the oculomotor nerve for sight and eye movement. Through his dissection of the eye, he discovered the different sections and layers of the eye: the cornea, the retina, the iris, and the choroid coat. Further study of the cranium led him to describe the calamus scriptorius which he believed was the seat of the human soul. Analysis of the nerves in the cranium allowed him to differentiate between nerves and blood vessels and to discover the differences between motor and sensory nerves. He believed that the sensory and motor nerves shot out from the brain and that the neural transmissions occurred by means of pneuma. Part of his belief system regarding the human body involved the pneuma, which he believed was a substance that flowed through the arteries along with the blood. Playing off of medical beliefs at the time, Herophilos stated that diseases occurred when an excess of one of the four humors impeded the pneuma from reaching the brain.

Herophilos also introduced many of the scientific terms used to this day to describe anatomical phenomena. He was among the first to introduce the notion of conventional terminology, as opposed to use of "natural names", using terms he created to describe the objects of study, naming them for the first time. A confluence of sinuses in the skull was originally named torcular Herophili after him. Torcular is a Latin translation of Herophilos' label, ληνός - lenos, 'wine vat' or 'wine press'.[2] He also named the dua denum, which is part of the small intestine. Herophilos is credited with learning extensively about the physiology of the reproductive system. In his book entitled Midwifery, he discussed phases and duration of pregnancy as well as causes for difficult childbirth. The aim of this work was to help midwives and other doctors of the time more fully understand the process of procreation and pregnancy. He is credited with the discovery of the ovum.[1][3] Other areas of his anatomical study include the liver, pancreas, and the alimentary tract, as well as the salivary and genitalia.

Herophilos believed that exercise and a healthy diet were integral to the bodily health of an individual. Herophilos once said that "when health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied."


  1. ^ a b Galen. On Semen. DeLacy P (trans.) Akademie Verlag, 1992. p.147 l.22
  2. ^ Herophilos. Heinrich Von Staden. Cambridge University Press, 1989. p.158
  3. ^ Connell SM. Aristotle and Galen on sex difference and reproduction: a new approach to an ancient rivalry. Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 31(3): 405-27, September 2000


  • von Staden H. (ed. trans.) Herophilos: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria. Cambridge University Press, 1989 ISBN 0521236460, 9780521236461
  • Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawford, "Herophilos," The Oxford Classical Dictionary. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 699.
  • "Herophilus", Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement Vol. 25 Thomson Gale. (Michigan: Gale).
  • von Staden H. (ed. trans.) Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria. Cambridge University Press, 1989
  • Adrian Wills, "Herophilus, Erasistratus, and the birth of neuroscience," The Lancet. (November 13, 1999): 1719 Expanded Academic ASAP. Gale, 30 Nov. 2008.
  • "On the Localization of the Functions of the Brain with Special Reference to the Faculty of Language," Anthropological Review, Vol. 6, (Oct., 1868) 336.
  • Galen. On the natural faculties. Brock AJ (trans.) Heinemann, London 1916. pp xii, 233

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