Alcmaeon of Croton

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"Human beings perish because they are not able to join their beginning to their end."
  Fragment of writings of Alcmaeon, translated by C. Huffman.[1] [2]

Alcmaeon, also Alcmaeon of Croton, was an ancient Greek early-vintage natural philosopher.[3] Alcmaeon had a wide spectrum of interests in natural phenomena (astronomical, anatomical, biological, cognitive, medical, inter alia), offering explanations of them in rational mechanistic terms as opposed to the prevailing explanations in terms of supernatural forces, and he had a particular interest in medicine and physiology.[4]

Historian of ancient Greek and Roman medicine, James Longrigg, states that of the medical theories of those natural philosophers in the era before Hippocrates of Kos (who, with his disciples, left an extensive body of writings known as the Hippocratic treatises), only those of Alcmaeon have survived to any significant extent.[5]

Ancient and modern scholars generally hold Alcmaeon in high esteem as an innovative thinker, as the originator or early proponent of the rationalistic explanation of health and disease, as an experimentalist, and as having a major influence on the development of Western medicine, in part through his influence on Hippocrates and his disciples.[5] "[Alcmaeon's] anatomical researches, particularly into the structure of the eye, and his connecting the senses with the brain...mark him as a pioneer in pure medical science."[6] Scholars have credited Alcmaeon as the first person to recognize the brain as the organ of sense perception, of intelligence, and as the seat of the mind.[7] [8]


Alcmaeon was born in about 515 BCE and flourished in the 400s BCE in the Greek city of Croton in Italy. Alcmaeon lived during and near the times of Pythagorus (ca. 570 – 490 BCE), also in Croton, and before Hippocrates of Kos (460 – ca. 370 BCE).[9] [5] [4] [10]

Contributions of Alcmaeon

   • Anatomy, physiology, and medicine

His [Alcmaeon´s] medical interests can be best seen in his theory of health, which deserves quotation at length, even though its wording may not be entirely his own: What preserves health is the equal distribution of its forces - moist, dry, cold, hot, bitter, sweet, etc., - and the domination of any one of them creates disease: for the dominance of any is destructive. Disease comes about on the one hand through an excess of heat or cold: on the other hand through surfeit or lack of nutriment; its location is the blood, marrow or brain. Disease may also sometimes come about from external causes, from the quality of the water, local environment, overwork, hardship or something similar. Health, by contrast, is a harmonious blending of the qualities.[reference to: Aetius. On the Opinions of the Philosophers 5, 30, 1 = Alcmaeon DK].
—Vivian Nutton, Ancient Medicine[9]

Andreas Vesalius’s biographer, C. D. O’Malley, credits Alcmaeon as the earliest known “genuine student of anatomy”:

The earliest known genuine student of anatomy appears to have been Alcmaeon of Crotona, who lived in southern Italy, c. 500 B.C. Only the slightest fragments of his writing remain, but from these it does appear that he was the first to make dissections of animals, probably goats, and although almost nothing is known of the results, he did make the very important declaration that the brain is the central organ of intelligence.[11]

J. B. Wilbur and H. J. Allen give this introduction to Alcmaeon:

Physiology and medicine were Alcmaeon's prime interest, which accounts for his concern with cognition and the nature of the soul. Because medicine had not yet emerged as a distinct discipline, however, Alcmaeon also expressed opinions on the immortality of the soul as well as on astronomy and cosmology--thus going beyond the limitations of his own medical empiricism. There are no fragments and little other information concerning his views on these last two subjects, but in any case it would seem that Alcmaeon's contributions are his ideas concerning knowledge and the soul.[12]

In the accompanying textbox (excerpt from Vivian Nutton), note Alcmaeon's speaking of equal distribution of ...forces and harmonious blending of qualities for preserving health. Forces and qualities evoke the thought of physiological activities; equal or equable (no extremes, not readily disturbed), of equable physiological activities — harmonious blending of homeostatically-adjusted equable physiological activities.[13] Thus, Alcmaeon's thoughts might reflect an intuition or adumbration, perhaps, of modern integrative physiology. He viewed health as a lack of conflict among forces, and, always, as beneficial consequences of the performance of balanced physiological function. Alcmaeon seems to have had a holistic philosophy of health, before the Hippocratic Corpus and later holistic approaches to health.

According to Huffman[4], Alcmaeon "is likely to have written his book sometime between 500 and 450 BC." Since Hippocrates was born ~460 BCE, it seems possible that Hippocrates' rational approach to medicine was prompted or influenced by the views of Alcmaeon, a possibility entertained by many scholars of ancient Greek medicine.

In his general introduction to his translation of the works of Hippocrates and his disciples, W. H. S. Jones suggests that:

The first philosophers to take a serious interest in medicine were the Pythagoreans. Alcmaeon of Croton, although perhaps not strictly a Pythagorean, was closely connected with the sect, and appears to have exercised considerable influence upon the Hippocratic school. The founder of empirical psychology and a student of astronomy, he held that health consists of a state of balance between certain " opposites," and disease an undue preponderance of one of them....The Treatise on Seven, with its marked Pythagorean characteristics, proves, if indeed it is as early as Roscher would have us believe, that even before Hippocrates disease was considered due to a disturbance in the balance of the humours, and health to a " coction " of them...[14]

   • Cognition and the role of the brain

Equipped with present scientific understanding, the fact that thought and conscious experience depend upon the brain is now an automatic and almost universal assumption. Little heed is paid to the fact that this relation proceeds without the slightest subjective experience of location as to the origin of thought per se. While the neuroscientist in reading these lines can contemplate the ensuing multimillion cellular processes involved: photon capture, elaborated through ionic/cellular cascades, digitally propelled into a dedal tangle of fatty threads that, over countable milliseconds, parse the signals within the intricacies of the cerebral cortex, neither scientist nor savage perceives a source from which the attendant perceptions and deductions emanate. The locus of mind is not betrayed and, until the epochal discovery of Alkmaion (Alcmaeon, ca. 500 BC) in the city of Kroton in Magna Graecia, humanity was free to assign thought and mental experience to whatever entity they chose, anatomical or otherwise.
—Robert W. Doty[7]

The extant fragments of Alcameon's, and the extant writings of the ancient natural philosophers who had access to his original works, indicate that Alcmaeon made observations, performed some dissections of animals, and gave thought to the nature of the perceptions mediated by the sensory organs of the head. Alcmaeon distinguished perception from understanding, as non-humans could perceive but not understand, whereas humans could do both. The difference resided in the brain, where all perception was directed, and where understanding proceeded from.

   • Alcmaeon's writings and their interpretation

Despite the scant fragments of his writings, Alcmaeon’s ideas did not die with him. According to Galen, Alcmaeon authored a book, On Nature, to which, before it disappeared, Aristotle, Theophrastus, and others had direct access for some time after Alcmaeon’s death.

Alcmaeon’s rich trove of ideas have earned him, according to various scholars, the honorific cognomina, Father of Physiology, Father of Anatomy, Father of Psychology, Founder of Gynecology, Creator of Psychiatry, and indeed, by some, Father of Medicine,[5] and Father of Neuroscience.[8]


NB: The annotations of the citations in the Reference section following, and on the Bibliography subpage of this article, provide elaborations of the text and introduce additional information about Alcmaeon.

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  1. Alcmaeon of Croton. Giannis Stamatellos's Presocratic Philosophy website. Ancient Greek Philosophy.
  2. Note:
    • Scholars have generated diverse conjectures on Alcmaeon's meaning of this statement. Perhaps Alcmaeon wrote in opposition to idea of reincarnation, held by his contemporary Pythagoreans: For the body not to perish it must renew itself in rebirth as a infant, joining end and new beginning, a beginning joined to its end. But, that does not qualify as rational, a feat achievable through natural causes, assertions consistent with Alcmaeon's rational or natural philosophy. | In a sense, however, Alcmaeon and his fellow Greeks, may have reincarnated, as the atoms comprising their bodies dispersed after their bodies decayed in death, taken up as building materials for other bodies, from microorganisms to plants and animals. Alcmaeon's body may be fragmented, like his writings, but important parts of his thinking continued vital to the present day.
  3. Note:
    • Today scholars recognize 'natural philosophers' as early scientists, seeking rational explanations of phenomena observable on Earth and in the sky, often confining their explanations to hypothetical (theoretical) constructs, over time developing sophisticated and methodical observations, initiating experimental techniques, and engaging in commentary and criticism of each others' works. Scholars consider Thales of Miletus, who flourished in the 6th century BCE, as the progenitor of natural philosophy, postulating water as the 'elementary' substance underlying all matter. Isaac Newton (1643-1727), whom we call today a mathematician and physicist, published his signal work in physics as The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Huffman, Carl, "Alcmaeon", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Full-Text of Article.
    • An extensive treatment of Almaeon's thinking and relationship to ancient Greek natural philosophy.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Longrigg J. (1993) Greek Rational Medicine: Philosophy and Medicine from Alcmaeon to the Alexandrians. New York: Routledge.
    • Longrigg states: while a precise dating is impossible upon the available evidence, a period of activity around the second quarter of the fifth century BC would pose no insurmountable chronological problem with regard to the theories and views attributed to Alcmaeon.
    • Longrigg gives a detail examination of the evidence for the dating of Alcmaeon’s life.
  6. Jones WHS. (1979) Philosophy and medicine in ancient Greece: with an edition of Peri archaiēs iētrikēs. Volume 8 of Johns Hopkins University Press reprints. Issue 8 of Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Supplements. Issue 8 of Henry E. Sigerist supplements to the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Ayer Publishing. ISBN 9780405106064.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Doty RW. (2007) Alkmaion's discovery that brain creates mind: a revolution in human knowledge comparable to that of Copernicus and of Darwin. Neuroscience 147:561-8.
    • Abstract: Without special examination the brain offers no clue that it is the organ of the mind. From the dawn of time man thus either ignored the problem as to the source of thought, or attributed it to a variety of anatomical structures, usually the heart. The brain held no place in such intuitions, and in most languages it is analogized to bone marrow. Furthermore, nothing in early medical systems claimed any intellectual capacity for the brain; the Egyptians, so fastidious in care for their afterlife, heedlessly discarded the brain in funerary practice. It was thus a unique event in world history when Alkmaion of Kroton (Alcmaeon, ca. 500 bc), based on anatomical evidence, proposed that the brain was essential for perception. Although no writings of Alkmaion survived, it was probably via a fortuitous linkage that his idea of the mental primacy of the brain was transmitted to, and preserved within, the teachings of the Hippocratic school. Nothing, of course, was secure as to mechanism, two millennia unfolding until the search for mind passed from the ventricles to the cerebral cortex. Nonetheless, Alkmaion was the beginning, and the ensuing understanding that he initiated is still transforming humanity's perception of the natural world, and their place within it.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Debernardi A, Sala E, D'Aliberti G, Talamonti G, Franchini AF, Collice M. (2010) Alcmaeon of Croton. Neurosurgery 66:247-52 | Free Full-Text.
    • Abstract: IN THE LATTER half of the sixth century BC, Croton was the site of the most famous medical school in Magna Graecia, where diseases of the human body were examined in a scientific and experimental manner instead of by using the contemporary supernatural, nearly magical concepts. Alcmaeon was one of the most active physicians interested in human physiology in the medical tradition of Croton. Although Alcmaeon was devoted to science and was a skillful experimentalist, little is known about his life and his exact birth date. The relative isolation of Alcmaeon from the great philosophical currents of his time probably facilitated his unprejudiced methodology and may have prevented him from disclosing his theories and demonstrating their value. He pioneered the concept of the relationship between the brain and the mind and was the first to identify the brain as the center of understanding and the essential organ for perceptions, sensations, and thoughts. Through systematic observations, Alcmaeon brought many things to light about the characteristics of the eye and the presence of channels connecting head sensory organs to the brain. He stated that the soul was immortal and introduced the tekmairesthai doctrine, through which the ideas of anamnesis and prognosis gave birth. We highlight his contributions to medical thought, and especially to neuroscience, which reveal Alcmaeon to be a thinker of considerable originality and one of the greatest philosophers, naturalists, and neuroscientists of all time.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Nutton V. (2004) Ancient Medicine. New York: Routledge
    • Nutton states: Whether he [Alcmaeon] flourished in the late sixth century BC [close to 500 BC] or a generation or so later, in the second quarter of the fifth [475-450 BC], is disputed. Tradition claimed him as a pupil of Pythagoras [c.582–c.507 BC] 'in his old age', but the textual and historical basis for this assertion is far from sound, and Alcmaeon's interests and the sophistication of some of his methods are better suited to the later date.
  10. Alcmaeon (2009) In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 07, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.</font>
  11. O'Malley CD. (1964) Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514-1564. Berkeley: University of California Press.
    • Note: Considered the definitive biography. Renown historian of medicine, F. N. L. Poynter, stated of Dr. O'Malley's book: "What strikes me immediately on reading Professor O'Malley's monumental work is the coolness of its judgment, the absence of any kind of special pleading or even of that warmth of expression which comes from the biographer's identification with his subject. This almost Olympian detachment is rare indeed and not to be found in any of the outstanding examples of the biographer's art which readily spring to mind." (See F. N. L. POYNTER. 1964. Andreas Vesalius of Brussels — 1514-1564: A Brief Survey of Recent Work. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 1964 XIX(4):321-326. PMID 14215447
  12. Wilbur JB, Allen HJ. (1979) The Worlds of the Early Greek Philosophers. Prometheus Books: Buffalo, NY.
    • About this book, from its Preface: The authors of this book have tried to do two things in presenting the written materials ascribed to the early Greek philosophers (c. 585 B.C.-400 B.C.) and the historical context in which those writings occurred. The first was to present a more fully fleshed out picture of the ideas of these men than has been given in the past. Perhaps under the influence of a narrow empiricism there has been a preference for letting the fragments speak for themselves. The trouble with this approach is that, even where there is a goodly number of fragments left, as, for instance, by Heraclitus, an adequate context for interpretation is not always evident from the fragments alone. And in the case of a thinker such as Anaximander, on the other hand, where there is so little firsthand evidence, what does remain is obscure taken solely on its own terms. Opposed to this Scylla of parsimony, there is, of course, the Charybdis of prodigal speculation. But we did not wish to hew a predetermined course equidistant from these two extremes. Rather the goal was to suit our passage to the winds and waters, sometimes nearer one than the other, as seemed best....The second aim, also in the nature of a mean between extremes, was to find a happy balance between overwhelming the reader with all the scholarly paraphernalia of etymology and philology, and presenting a stripped-down version of the ideas that conveys no sense of the condition and source of our knowledge about them. While, for all but the specialist, the former detracts from the ideas presented, the latter fails to give a proper appreciation of the subject. In practice, this means that we<tried to indicate, whenever possible, who attributed an idea to a given philosopher while at the same time providing the student with the relevant passage so he can read for himself what, for instance, Heraclitus said about Pythagoras. For this reason, the fragments themselves as well as essential interpretive passages are included in the text. Testimonials by other thinkers, which are of great importance to our knowledge of the earliest of these Greek philosophers, are either included in the body of the text or referred to at the bottom of the page, depending upon their relevance. A guide to these testimonial sources appears at the end of the book, along with a selected bibliography for the period as well as for the thinkers.
  13. Kontopoulou TD, Marketos sg. (2002) Homeostasis: The Ancient Greek Origin of a Modern Scientific Principle. Hormones 1(2):124-125.
    • Alcmaeon of Croton introduced the term isonomia. His doctrine concerning the balancing of opposite qualities seems to be the distant ancestor of homeostasis.
  14. Jones WHS. (1868) Hippocrates Collected Works, By Hippocrates, Edited by: W. H. S. Jones (trans.). Cambridge Harvard University Press. | Online.