SEED Science

History of Medicine
The Beginnings of Modern Medicine: The Caliphate

Islamic physicians describe anatomy and diseaes

Avicenna book page

Image courtesy of National Library of Medicine.

Persian physician Avicenna codified all the information known about medicine in the 11th century. Seen here is a page from one of his books.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Greek ideas on medicine were most accurately preserved and transmitted in the Islamic empire. Under the Abbasid caliphate, a center was established in Baghdad specifically for the translation of a broad range of non-Islamic texts into Arabic. Scholars from all over the Islamic empire (including Arabs, Persians, Jews) not only codified Greek medicine, including Galen’s ideas, but incorporated medical writings from the Talmud, occult teachings from Egypt, and Ayurvedic ideas from India. Both the Carakasamhita and the Susrutasamhiat, for example, were translated into Arabic. These scholars also made significant advances in knowledge.

One of the leading lights of the eastern part of the caliphate was Al-Razi (known in the West as Rhazes; c. 860–930), a Persian who wrote a Comprehensive Book of Medicine in the 9th century. He distinguished smallpox from measles, recognized allergic reactions, realized that fever was one of the body’s ways of fighting disease, and introduced animal gut for stitching wounds and plaster of paris for casts. Ibn Sina (Avicenna; 980–1037), a Persian from the 11th century, codified medical knowledge of the time. His work was used in European universities for centuries. Among his major contributions was the discovery of the contagious nature of infectious diseases and the introduction of quarantines to limit their spread. He also introduced systematic experimentation. In the 13th century an Arab named Ibn Al Nafis (1213-88) was the first to describe the circulation of the blood through the lungs. This challenged Galen’s notion about blood passing directly between the ventricles of the heart.

On Surgery

Image courtesy of Clendening History of Medicine Library, University of Kansas Medical Center.

Muslim physician Albucasis wrote one of the earliest texts about surgery, called On Surgery. Included in the book were illustrations of more than 200 surgical instruments.


Image courtesy of National Library of Medicine.

The great medieval Jewish physician Maimonides stressed the importance of hygiene in his writings.

In the western, or Spanish, caliphate, Al-Zahrawi (Albucasis; 936-1013) produced the first systematic, illustrated treatise on surgery, published about 1000. Ibn Zohr (Avenzoar; c. 1091-1161) also challenged many of Galen’s notions. He stressed the importance of experience over doctrine and first accurately described the diseases scabies and pericarditis. A contemporary of Ibn Zohr was Maimonides (1135-1204), the greatest medieval Jewish physician. His writings include an influential work on hygiene. Maimonides eventually went east to become the physician of the famous sultan Saladin.

Scholars from the Islamic world also made major contributions to pharmacology, creating numerous drug formularies. The word drug is of Arabic origin, and Arabs introduced many new ones. These include alcohol; benzoin, a balsamic resin used as an expectorant and skin protectant; camphor, a waxy substance obtained from camphor trees and used as a mild topical anesthetic; laudanum, a form of opium; myrrh, a gum resin with multiple medical uses (and one of the gifts of the Three Kings in the story of the birth of Jesus Christ); and senna, a leguminous herb used as a purgative.


Image courtesy of 2travel2egypt.

Cairo, Egypt, is home to one of the world’s oldest hospitals. It was still in use at the end of the 18th century.

Health care was provided by a wide range of practitioners, most of them using traditional methods. In the major cities, however, hospitals were established. They seem to have been inspired by the care for the sick offered by Christian monasteries, but they soon became more elaborate. There were major institutions in cities such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus, and many more scattered in cities throughout the Muslim world. The hospital in Cairo had separate wards for different diseases, for women, and for convalescents. It was still in use when Napoleon invaded Egypt at the end of the 18th century. The first institutions for the care of mentally ill people were also established in the Muslim world.

The developments of Islamic physicians took a long time to reach medieval Europe, where people who were sick visited shrines devoted to Christian saints.

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