Before Western and Modern Medicine & Surgery II: The Great Physicians

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Western medicine, when it started to evolve during the Renaissance, didn't evolve from thin air, but built on traditions from Egypt, Babylonia, India, Old Greece, and, above all, Middle Ages Islam.

This is an article in 2 parts, where we will briefly look at these traditions and some of the greatest representatives of them. Part I was an introduction and general discussion, part II (below) presents some of history's most important physicians and what they did.


With us ther was a Doctour of Phisyk

In al this world ne was ther noon him lyk

To speke of phisik and surgerye, . . .

Wel knew he the olde Esculapius,

And Deiscorides, and eek Rufus,

Old Ypocras, Haly, and Galien,

Serapion, Razis, and Avicen

(Chaucer, Canterbury Tales)


Imhotep [Immutef, Im-hotep] approximately (2650-2600 BC), had an impressive number of titles: "Chancellor of the King of Egypt, Doctor, First in line after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief". No doubt, he was the highest ranked non-Royal in Egyptian history, and was bestowed divine status after death. Many achievements are attributed to him but it is impossible to know which of them are really his. No doubt, he designed Djoser's pyramid. According to legend he founded medicine, which is certainly untrue, and several medical texts of value are attributed to him. If he really wrote them is impossible to know. He remains, however, the oldest physician known to us by name, and he became the god of healing and medicine.


Hesi-Re, [Hesire, Hesy-Re] with the epithet "the greatest of those who dealt with teeth, and of the physicians," is the first dentist of history known by name. Obviously he was a physician with dentistry as his speciality. The modern peculiar separation of dentistry from the medical science came later.

This man was also "known by the king", which perhaps indicates that he was royal himself, and "overseer of the royal scribes". He lived and worked during the reign of Netjerikhet [Djoser], lasting approximately 2630-2611 BC, although the exact years are very uncertain.


In the West, Hippocrates (460?-370? BC) is considered as the father of medicine. For good and bad, he established it as a discipline separate from other scientific and scholarly fields. His own achievements were not insignificant, but his main work was that he summed up the medical knowledge of the time. Above all, however, he is remembered for the Hippocratic Oath, which sets ethical standards for the conduct of a physician. It is unsure if Hippocrates wrote it, however, since it more resembles Pythagorean ideas.

One of his ideas was that the body is a whole and must be treated as such, not as parts. He also attributed thoughts and emotions to the brain, while his contemporaries placed them in the heart. Something we still have a remnant of in many modern languages. Hearts are "broken" or "gladdened".

Finally he recognised the intimate connection between diet and health. A thought that at least in western medicine feels very modern, still almost ahead of our time.


Galen (129?-216/217?), Roman physician of Greek origin. Definitely a representative of Greek medicine. His influence on Islamic and Western medicine is perhaps greater than anyone else's. His model of the human body prevailed for over a thousand years. He wrote a book: "That the Best Physician is also a Philosopher", which reflects his view on the medical profession. He was not only a physician, but covered many disciplines and his literary production was immense. Unfortunately a lot of it has been lost.


Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, Latinised Geber (721-815), Arabian or Persian polymath, physician, and alchemist, sometimes considered as "the father of chemistry". His works are many and varied, and his achievements too many to mention in this short survey. He is best known, however, for developing the distillation process [fractional distillation] that produces purified alcohol. [Some later historians question that he did. I am not going to evaluate the arguments for or against that here.]


Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi (?-873?) was known as the great translator of medical texts to Syriac and Arabic, both Greek originals, and important Sanskrit texts from India, as Sushruta Samhita, and Charaka Samhita. He also was the physician of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil.


Yahya Ibn Sarabyun (Sarafyun), or Serapion, (9th century) was a Syriac physician and geographer. He tried to combine Greek and Arabian methods and described diseases and their treatment in a work called "al-Kunnash". As Serapion, he is often confused with another Arabian physician of that name, who lived in the 12th century. They were long believed to be the same person, and since very little is known about their lives, confusion is not surprising. Sometimes they are distinguished by the epithet "the older" and "the younger".


Rhazes, or Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi (865?-925), Persian physician, alchemist, philosopher - possibly the greatest physician of all times. In my opinion, he is more important than Ibn Sina. His greatest work was "Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb", a summary of medical knowledge, with additions of his own observations. It was translated to Latin [Continens] in 1279 by Faraj ben Salim. Another book which influenced European medicine was "Liber ad Amansoris". Further, his treatise on smallpox and measles was widely studied in Europe as late as the 17th century.


Hasdai Abu Yusuf ben Yitzhak ben Ezra ibn Shaprut (915-970), a Jewish physician and diplomat in Cordoba, at the court of Abdul Rahman III. He is best remembered for his translation of a work on botany.


Ibn Juljul (943-?), Andalusian physician who wrote valuable works on medical history.


Ali ibn al-Abbas al-Majusi, Latinised Haly Abbas (?-994), physician of Zoroastrian origin, a critic of Rhazes. His "Kitab Kamil al-sina'ah al-tibbiyah" is one of the real masterworks of medical literature of the time. In Europe his work came to be known as "Liber regius". Above all, al-Majusi systemised the medical knowledge.


Albucasis, or Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas Al-Zahrawi (936-1013), Moorish physician, working in Cordoba. He compiled all medical knowledge (as he saw it) in "Kitab al-Tasrif li-man 'ajiza 'an al-ta'lif", an encyclopedical work of great value. He was court physician to al-Hakam II.


Abu Hakam Amr ibn Abd al-Rahman ibn Ahmed ibn Ali al-Karmani, Moorish physician, surgeon and mathematician, whose influence was considerable. Perhaps more important as a mathematician than as a physician.


Ibn Sina, or Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abdullah ibn Sina (980-1037) was Persian, one of the greatest physicians of all times. His "Kitab al-Qanun fi al-tibb", or simply "Qanun" [Canon] was the ultimate medical authority for centuries. He was also a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher.


Masawaih al-Mardini (?-1015), born in Mesopotamia, worked first in Bagdhad, then in Egypt. He was a Jacobite (monophysite) Christian. His works include "De medicins laxativis", on emetics; and above all a pharmacopoeia, "Antidotarium sive Grabadin medicamentorum", which sums up the knowledge within this field. It was used in the West, too, for several centuries.


Ibn al-Haitham, who worked in Cairo during the beginning of the 11th century is sometimes considered as the greatest Medieval physicist [no error], with his works on optics, which are amongst the masterworks of science; he also dealt with the physics of music, with alchemy and chemistry, and he contributed to medicine as well.


Abu-l-Qasim Ammar ibn Ali al-Mawsili, Latinised Canamusali was an Iraqi who worked in Egypt during the reign of al-Hakim (996-1020). He wrote "Kitab al-muntakhab fi ilaz al-ain", about the eye, also including surgery.


Abu-l-Mutarrif abd al-Rahman ibn Mohammed ibn Abd al-Karim ibn Yahya ibn al-Wafid al-Lakhmi, Latinised Abenguefit (997-1074), was a Moorish physician and pharmacologist. He wrote on drugs in "Kitab al-adwaiya al-mufrada", where he combined old knowledge, among others from Galen, with his own observations and studies.


Ibn al-Taiyib, or Abu-l-Faraj Abdallah Ibn al-Taiyib al-Iraqi, or Latinised Abulpharagius Abdalla Benattibus (?-1043/1044); a Nestorian Christian who lived and worked in Baghdad. He was a physician, commentator, and translator. His translations were of great importance.


Abu-l-Hasan al-Mukhtar ibn al-Hasan ibn Abdun ibn Sa'dun ibn Butlan, or Latinised Elluchasem Elimither (?-1063), Christian physician of Baghdad. Wrote extensively on hygiene and dietetics [The Tables of Health]. Had a long polemic fight with Ibn Ridwan.


Ali bin Isa (?-?), possibly a Christian, wrote the first major work on ophtalmology [the eye]. In three volumes [Tadhkirat al-kahhalin] he dealt with the anatomy and physiology of the eye, diseases, and general medicine - all with the eye in focus. It is an extraordinary work, both summing up older knowledge, and adding new observations.


Ibn Ridwan, or Abu'l Hasan Ali ibn Ridwan Al-Misri (998-1061/1069) lived and worked in Cairo. He wrote extensively, including commentaries on Hippocrates and Galen. His "Fi daf mudar al-abdan bi-ard Misr" is a classic. It is dealing with hygiene from an Egyptian perspective.


Ibn Zuhr (?-1162), Latinised Avenzoar, was the personal physician of several Almoravid Caliphs, and wrote several classical works: "Taysir", 1280 translated to Latin; and "Kitab al-Kulyat fi al-Tibb", with Latin title "Colliget".


Ibn al-Nafis, or Ala al-Din Abu al-Hassan Ali ibn Abi-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashqi (1210-1288), physician and polymath, born in Damascus, worked in Cairo. His main contribution to medicine is within the field of circulatory physiology. Generally, he is one of the absolutely greatest physicians of his times, perhaps the greatest. By his admirers he has been called the second Ibn Sina, or even been considered as superior to him. His works to some extent replaced those of Ibn Sina as the ultimate medical authority.


Ibn al-Baytar (13th-14th century), Chief of Botanists in Cairo, wrote the important "Kitab al-Jami' li-mufradat al-adwiyah wa-al-aghdhiyah" [The Comprehensive Book on Materia Medica and Foodstuffs], a work that was the basis for many later treatises.


Ali ibn 'Abd al-'Azim al-Ansari, a Syrian, wrote (1270) about plants and medical practice in the Crusader states.


Ibn al-Khatib, or Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Said ibn Ali ibn Ahmad al-Salmani, of 14th century Granada (although exiled twice), was active during the black death. He wrote:

"The existence of contagion is established by experience, investigation, the evidence of the senses and trustworthy reports. These facts constitute a sound argument. The fact of infection becomes clear to the investigator who notices how he who establishes contact with the afflicted gets the disease, whereas he who is not in contact remains safe, and how transmission is affected through garments, vessels and earrings."

Apart from a physician, he was also a writer, historian, poet, and politician. If you visit the great Moorish castle Alhambra in Granada, you can see some of his poems on the walls. His most famous work is not about medicine, but history: "Al-Ihata fi akhbar Gharnata", about the history of Granada.

Copyright © 2012, 2022 Meleonymica/Mictorrani. All Rights Reserved.

(Thumbnail; Galen, engraving by Georg Paul Busch. Public Domain.)

Read also part I, Before Western and Modern Medicine & Surgery I - Introduction & General Discussion.

My articles on history can be found here.

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Hello! Can you still remember me Sydney? :D

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2 years ago

Of course I do. Hi & welcome back Sydney! I had not seen your new account here though, and I would probably not have connected you with "the old" Sydney if you had not written this comment. Nice to see you again.

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2 years ago

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No, but I am considering to open an account there too.

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2 years ago

Hmm.. I remember my elementary days in medschool, a lecturer made us memorize the names of this great people. The Islamic world seems to be at its golden age in the early developments of medicine. I appreciate this piece mictoranni.

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2 years ago

The Islamic world was at its golden age then indeed. It's often forgotten how much it meant for the evolution of the Renaissance, European culture and its subsequent science, philosophy and art.

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2 years ago

Wonderful list of ancient, relevant and wise people! I have read about Galen as I love all related to the Roman Empire, so interesting personality. He had a real and curious spirit to be a doctor. And as a curiosity in Spanish if we say a "galeno" we understand also as a synonym of "a doctor".

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2 years ago

If you like everything related to the Roman Empire, I suggest you read my article about Roman Imperial Purple, and this about Rome & Egypt,

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2 years ago

Thanks for the info! I will!

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2 years ago

My dear friend, this article was great, and I really enjoyed reading it. I love history and historical figures. All the individuals you mentioned were very great people, and they rendered valuable services to humanity.

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2 years ago

Thank you, I'm glad that you liked it. If you like history, I have written a lot of articles about it. You can find many of them here:

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2 years ago

Oh great, I will definitely visit them... 👌

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2 years ago