The chief of the dynasty of the Lagides, Ptolomy Soter, was not contented with collecting, at a great expense, an enormous quantity of books ; he felt also the necessity of having order and choice in his collection. To effect this, he called around him men, the most renowned for their erudition, and gave them residences near the library, and created a revenue for their maintenance. Some were charged with the classification, collation and annotation of the manuscripts; and the copies that underwent this labor of revisal were
then entered in the catalogue. Other savans, equally at the expense of the State, occupied themselves with the investigations and studies of their taste, being confined to no particular task ; only, they were required to meet together on certain days, to deliver lectures and discuss various subjects. The king himself sometimes took a part in these reunions, by proposing different questions for solution, and taking part in the discussions.
These re-unions became still more frequent and formal under Ptolomy Philadelphus, son and successor of Soter. They were called ludi musarum ef, Apollinis, literary contests or feasts, and the palace where they were held was named the Museum. Often the subject for discussion was announced beforehand. Those who succeeded best, received public eulogies and rewards proportionate to the merit of their compositions. All the savans, artists' and professors, that lived in Alexandria, were not lodged in the Museum, nor pensioners of the king ; that honor, and the privileges which were attached to it, were accorded to a very small number. Amongst those who enjoyed it, under the reign of the first two Lagides, only two physicians are named, viz : Herophilus and Erisistratus. The latter, it is said, was the grandson of Aristotle, and pupil of Theophrastus. He did not reside in the capital of Egypt till the close of his life ; for it appears that, in his old age, he retired to Smyrna, where he founded a school.
It was under Philadelphus that the Hebrew savans were charged with the translation into Greek, of the Holy Scriptures ; and it is well known that the translation they made, called the Septuagint, has always been highly esteemed. An Egyptian priest always presided over the museum, so that the Alexandrian Institute included the debris of the antique science of Egypt, the doctrines of the Jews, and the more recent compositions of the philosophers and literati of Greece. Besides, the sovereigns of Egypt sent more than one expedition into the interior of Africa, along the coasts of the Bed Sea, and as far as the East Indies, to make discoveries and establish relations in the interests of commerce and the sciences. Thus the torch of civilization, which had anciently shone upon the banks of the Nile with a mysterious and isolated light, returned, after being increased and vivified at the free fires of the genius of Greece, to shed an eclat more resplendent than ever on its early cradle; and thus the city of the Ptolomies became not only the entrepôt of Greek and Roman commerce, but also a scientific focus, whose light was shed for ten centuries upon the antique universe.
Amongst the sciences which received the most encouragement in the Institute of the Lagides, we must place in the first rank that of Medicine. By a concourse of happy circumstances which we shall presently enumerate, the school of Alexandria eclipsed, from its origin, the ancient schools of Cridas, Cos, and Pergamos ; and while it existed, it was not equaled by any other. In the time of Galen, it sufficed to have studied in that city, or even to have resided there for a time, to obtain the reputation of a physician. Nearly all the men who became distinguished in the different branches of the healing art, for a considerable length of time, had received instruction in that school, or had been there, to perfect their knowledge in their profession.
The success in the cultivation of Medicine in the Greco-Egyptian Institute, was due, as we have said, to several causes, at the head of which we must place the authorization accorded by the founders of that establishment, for the dissection of human corpses. Doubtless that authorization, nearly unique in antiquity, gave to the anatomical, physiological and surgical sciences an extraordinary impulse. But the princes of the family of the Lagidce did not content themselves with delivering over to the scalpel of the anatomists the corpses of criminals ; they participated themselves sometimes, it is said, in the labors of dissection; so anxious were they to penetrate the secrets of nature and life. Perhaps, also, they did so to destroy, by the force of their example, the odium to which the physicians exposed themselves by their anatomical researches. (Pliny, Natural History, T. XIX., p. 5. Lanth. Hist, de l'Anatomie, Strasbourg, 1845)
The Ptolomies did not favor less the progress of natural history and the materia medica, by the collection of rare animals and plants that were made for the museum, near their palace. They spared, if we may believe the tradition respecting it, neither expense nor care to render these collections as complete as possible ; they were proud to exhibit them to the savans and travelers of distinction whom the renown of their intellectual riches attracted to their capital ; a policy both eminent and liberal, and which, even after the destruction of the kingdoms of Egypt, maintained the city of Alexandria in the rank of the first cities of the empire.
Nevertheless, the practice of dissections did not long continue in favor, even in the city where it had its origin ; scarcely did it continue to exist to the end of the second century. Consequently, science very soon took a bad direction at Alexandria ; natural researches were replaced by subtile discussions on subjects idle or inaccessible to the human understanding. But of all the scourges which hindered the progress of medical science in Egypt, that of the Roman domination was the most fatal. That royal people, who delighted to see blood flow, not only on the battle-field, but also in their diversions and daily exhibitions, regarded as a profanation the contact of a corpse ; so that not a single anatomist of any reputation had his origin in Rome. If, on any occasion a foreign physician, attached to the persons of the Emperors or Generals, desired to avail himself of the occasions that were afforded, to examine the structures of the internal parts of the human body, he was obliged to conceal and carry off, during the night, some body abandoned to the birds of prey.
To complete our misfortune, the labors of the physicians who illustrated the first epoch of the school of Alexandria, are all lost ; we only know of them now by tradition, and by fragments that writers of a later period have preserved. The burning of the great library, by Julius Caesar, was the beginning of a chain of disasters with which the Roman domination cursed the Alexandrian Institute. However, Queen Cleopatra, whose enlightened zeal for the sciences has rendered her quite as celebrated as her beauty, her frailties, her crimes, and her death - Cleopatra, I say, repaired as much as possible this loss, by obtaining from her spouse, Mark Antony, the transportation of the Horary of Pergamos to Alexandria. But a more grievous and irreparable blow was given to this establishment, by the atrocious and imbecile Cavacalla, who, after having assassinated the greater part of the inhabitants of the city, took from the pensioners of the Museum the privilege of living together, and the other advantages which they enjoyed, and suppressed the public exhibitions and discussions.(Hist. de l'Anatomie, p. 117)
We can now only trace the progress of science through that period, by collecting and comparing the debris which have been preserved by Galen, Aretaeus, Coelius, Aurelianus, Celsus, Dioscorides, Pliny, and some others. It is by the aid of these scattered documents that we proceed to reconstruct the scientific edifice of Medicine, as it existed at the end of the second century of the Christian era. In attempting this, we shall follow the same order that we have already adopted, namely, commence by showing the material progress of each branch of the art, and reserve for the end the discussion of the themes and systems of the time.
From History of Medicine by P.V. Renouard M.D.