The Western World today has astonishing prowess in the medical arts and sciences. But let’s be honest—during the middle ages European medicine was pitiably archaic, consisting mostly of palliative care at monastic hospitals, the surgical services of a barber, and herbalism. Europe had misplaced the gift of the Galenic medical tradition of intellectual inquiry, and it went missing for hundreds of years. In the meantime in the islamic world there emerged “…a republic of physician-philosophers under the neutral umbrella of Galenic medicine, which survived to transcend cultures and centuries”.
The icon and exemplar of the vigorous pursuit of medical knowledge in the islamic world is Avicenna or Ibn Sina (son of Sina), 980-1037. The phenomenon that was Avicenna resulted when an exceptional intelligence was nurtured by a society in which scholarship was not only admired but invested in. It is said that he memorized the Quran by age 10. As a teen he studied Euclid, Ptolemy and Aristotle, Law… and Medicine.
We will only refer to the fact that his career encompassed scholarly works (450) on philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, geology, psychology, theology, logic, match, physics and poetry. Of the 40 books he wrote on medicine we point out The Canon of Medicine (Al-Qanun fi't-Tibb) which was both an encyclopedia of Greek, Indian and Persian medicine and observations from his own medical practice.
Brilliance in the Dark Ages
“He may not have been as great a physician as a philosopher…but with him Islamic medicine reached its zenith.” And a lofty zenith it was, especially in contrast to the nadir of Middle Age Europe. This contrast was brought to film in The Physician, in which Avicenna is played by Ben Kingsley. The movie is historical fiction and a bit formulistic as to story arc. But it does provide a rich sensory appreciation of the dichotomy in medical skills between the two parts of the world around 1000 CE.
The debate over the relative role of ‘the great man’ versus the societal milieu began back in the 19th century, between historians Thomas Carlyle and Herbert Spencer. Which has the greater impact on cultural advances? In the case of Avicenna, let us give due respect to the intellectual climate and medical tradition that surrounded him.
The intellectual climate of his time was shaped by centuries of translation and cross-cultural scholarship, especially robust during the Abbasid dynasty beginning in 750 CE and exemplified by The House of Wisdom.
And a rich Persian medical tradition began 200 hundred years before Avicenna, during the Caliphate of Al-Mamun who fostered an eclectic medical school in Gundishapur in southern Persia.
The Canon of Medicine
However the world came by the genius of Avicenna, his influence was lasting. In medicine alone, his Canon was referenced in practice well into the 18th century. It is remarkable in scope and specificity. It was the ‘best practices’ of its era and was admired by physician William Osler and lauded by historian George Sarton. The full text in English is available from archive.org, and the Wikipedia overview is well done. (NB: His Book of Healing is not about medicine but philosophy and natural sciences).
Avicenna may be little known to modern Western physicians but for many centuries his “name hung on the lips of physicians and philosophers from the borders of China to the cloisters of medieval Paris and Oxford.”
The National Library of Medicine has a nice section on Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts.