Rhazes and Avicenna

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Peter Watson, in his book Ideas, discussed[1] the contributions of two Islamic doctors, circa 900 AD, who made pivotal contributions to Western medicine.

Two Islamic doctors from this time must rank among the greatest physicians in all history. Al-Razi, known in the West by his Latin name, Rhazes, was born in 865 in the Persian town of Rayy and was an alchemist in his youth but also a polymath. He wrote nearly two hundred books, on such diverse subjects as theology, mathematics and astronomy, though nearly half of what he produced was medical. He clearly had a sense of humour -- two of his titles were On the Fact That Even Skilful Physicians Cannot Heal All Diseases and Why People Prefer Quacks and Charlatans for Skilful Physicians. He was the first chief physician of the great hospital at Baghdad and, in choosing the site, is said to have hung up shreds of meat in different places, selecting the spot where putrefaction was least. (If true, this comes close to being the first example of an experiment.) But al-Razi is best known for making the first description of smallpox and measles. His other great book was Al-Hawi (The Comprehensive Book), a twenty-three-volume encyclopaedia of Greek, pre-Islamic Arab, Indian and even Chinese medical knowledge. It covered diseases of the skin and joints, and explored the effects of diet and the concept of hygiene (not so straightforward before the germ theory of disease).

The other great Muslim physician was Ibn Sina, again known in the West by a Latinised name, Avicenna. Like al-Razi he wrote some two hundred books, on a diverse range of subjects, but his most famous work was Al-Qanun (The Canon), a majestic synthesis of Greek and Arabic medical thought. The range of diseases and disorders considered is vast, from anatomy to purges, tumours to fractures, the spreading of disease by water and by soil, and the book codifies some 760 drugs. The Qanun also pioneered the study of psychology, in that Ibn Sina observed a close association between emotional and physical states, the beneficial role of music, the role of the environment in medicine (i.e., rudimentary epidemiology), and in so far as he viewed medicine as 'the art of removing impediments to the normal functioning of nature', he may be said to have given the discipline its philosophical grounding. In the twelfth century the Qanun was translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona and, together with al-Razi's Al-Hawi, displaced Galen and served as the basic textbooks in European medical schools until at least the seventeenth century, well over half a millennium.


  1. ^ Peter Watson, Ideas : A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, New York : HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005, pp. 271--271.
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