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Galen was born in Pergamum (modern-day Bergama, Turkey), the son of Nicon, a wealthy architect. His interests were eclectic - agriculture, architecture, astronomy, astrology, philosophy - until he concentrated on medicine.
By the age of twenty he had become a therapeutes ("attendant" or "associate") of the god Asclepius in the local temple for four years. After his father's death in 148 or 149 he left to study abroad. He studied in Smyrna and Corinth and at Alexandria. He studied medicine for a total of twelve years. When he returned to Pergamum in 157, he worked as a physician in a gladiator school for three or four years. During this time he gained experience of trauma and wound treatment. He later regarded wounds as "windows into the body".
From 162 he lived in Rome where he wrote extensively, lectured and publicly demonstrated his knowledge of anatomy. He gained a reputation as an experienced physician and his practice had widespread clientele. One of them was the consul Flavius Boethius who introduced him to the court where he became a court physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Later he also treated Lucius Verus, Commodus and Septimius Severus. Reputedly he spoke mostly Greek, which was a more respected language of medicine than Latin at the time. He briefly returned to Pergamum during 166-169.
Galen spent the rest of his life in the Imperial court, writing and experimenting. He performed vivisections of numerous animals to study the function of the kidneys and the spinal cord. His favorite subject was the barbary ape. Reportedly he employed twenty scribes to write down his words. In 191, fire in the Temple of Peace destroyed some of his records. His exact date of death has traditionally been placed around the year 200, based on a reference from the 10th century Suda Lexicon. Some, however, have argued for dates as late as 216.