Early man knew that the heart was important and powerful. As early as 1550 B.C., a passage in the socalled Ebers Papyrus of the ancient Egyptians reported that evidence of pains in the arm and the breast on the side of the heart suggested that death was approaching. Suggested treatment for such problems included beer taken with herbs.
Evidence of heart disease is also present in mummies. A. R. Long described in 1931 the condition of the fragile heart he found in a mummy dating from approximately 1,000 B.C. Further research found evidence of scarring of the heart muscle and of endocarditis, an inflammation, on the mitral valve.
Observational knowledge about the heart increased with the flowering of ancient Greece. According to P. E. Baldry, the earliest description of the circulatory system was developed in 500 B.C. by Alcmaeon, a pupil of the mathematician and scientist Pythagoras. Alcmaeon wrote that the breath, or the spirit, was sent around the body by blood vessels. Hippocrates (460-375 B.C.) and his students made many important observations about the heart. They noted that sharp pains irradiating towards the breast bone and the back were fatal; that those who were fat were more likely to die than those who were thin; and that those in pain should rest immediately. In the second century A.D., another Greek author, Aretaeus, described various ways to treat heart pain while it was occurring, including the offering of wine, the bleeding of the patient, and the encouragement of the physician.
Greek knowledge of the heart was limited by the general prohibition on human dissection. The dissection of humans was allowed in the ancient culture in Alexandria, however, where it enabled such advances as a detailed study of the way the blood vessels worked and the rate of the arterial pulse, conducted by Herophilus in 300 B.C. But the practice of human dissection was prohibited by the ancient Romans and throughout the medieval era in Europe.
The heart held special fascination for Galen (A.D. 130-200), a Greek who practiced medicine in Rome. Galen's extensive writing about the way the heart worked was respected throughout the Middle Ages. Through clinical practice with humans and careful observation of dissected animals, Galen observed that lungs were responsible for expelling waste material and that the heart was responsible for the pulse. He was known for the observation that a young woman's pulse quickened when the name of the man she loved was spoken.
Some of Galen's statements about the heart were wrong. He erroneously believed that some vessels could be used for blood flowing in two directions, and, while he knew there were chambers in the heart, he believed there were invisible pores in the tissue separating the right and left ventricles through which blood could flow. Galen wrote that these pores enabled blood to mix with air in the left ventricle. Due to the popularity of his work, these errors were passed down for centuries.