Discover the Persian 11th Century Canon of Medicine, “The Most Famous Medical Textbook Ever Written”

It may nev­er lend a catchy title to a steamy TV hos­pi­tal dra­ma, but Avicenna’s 11th-cen­tu­ry Canon of Med­i­cine has the dis­tinc­tion of being “the most famous med­ical text­book ever writ­ten.” It has remained, as William Osler wrote in a 1918 Yale lec­ture, “a med­ical bible for a longer time than any oth­er work.” Com­plet­ed in 1025, the com­pendi­um drew Greek, Roman, Ara­bic, Indi­an, and Chi­nese med­ical sci­ence togeth­er in five dense vol­umes of mate­r­i­al informed by the the­o­ries of Galen and struc­tured by the sys­tem­at­ic phi­los­o­phy of Aris­to­tle, whom Avi­cen­na (Abū-ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn-ʿAb­dal­lāh Ibn-Sīnā) called “The First Teacher.”

Trans­lat­ed into Latin in the 12th cen­tu­ry and “often revised,” the Canon, notes the Stan­ford Ency­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy, “formed the basis of med­ical instruc­tion in Euro­pean Uni­ver­si­ties until the 17th cen­tu­ry.” A copy of excerpts from the text has even been found trans­lat­ed into 15th-cen­tu­ry Irish, demon­strat­ing a link between medieval Ire­land and the Islam­ic world. Avicenna’s influ­ence gen­er­al­ly on the intel­lec­tu­al cul­ture of medieval and ear­ly mod­ern Europe and the Arab-speak­ing world can hard­ly be over­stat­ed.

Born in 980 A.D., the Per­sian philoso­pher and physi­cian was instru­men­tal in the recov­ery of Hel­lenic thought, first in the Islam­ic world, then lat­er in Europe. He took to the study of med­i­cine very ear­ly in his extra­or­di­nary career. “I became pro­fi­cient in it in the short­est time,” he says, “until the excel­lent schol­ars of med­i­cine began to study under me.” He also became a prac­tic­ing physi­cian, inspired by a desire to put his learn­ing to the test. “Through my expe­ri­ences I acquired an amaz­ing prac­ti­cal knowl­edge and abil­i­ty in meth­ods of treat­ment.”

The prac­ti­cal knowl­edge in The Canon of Med­i­cine was large­ly the basis for its con­tin­ued use for cen­turies. It lays out rules for drug test­ing, which include an insis­tence on human tri­als and the impor­tance of con­duct­ing mul­ti­ple exper­i­ments and show­ing con­sis­tent results across cas­es. Like most clas­si­cal sci­en­tif­ic texts, it weaves empir­i­cal obser­va­tion with meta­physics, the­ol­o­gy, scholas­tic spec­u­la­tion, and cul­tur­al bias­es par­tic­u­lar to its time and place. But the prac­ti­cal out­lines of its med­ical knowl­edge tran­scend its archaisms.

The work presents “an inte­grat­ed view of surgery and med­i­cine,” notes the Jour­nal of the Roy­al Soci­ety of Med­i­cine. In addi­tion to his immi­nent­ly use­ful guide for assess­ing the effects of drugs, Ibn Sina tells his read­ers “how to judge the mar­gin of healthy tis­sue to remove with an ampu­ta­tion,” an inter­ven­tion that has saved count­less num­bers of lives. “The endur­ing respect in the 21st cen­tu­ry for a book writ­ten a mil­len­ni­um ear­li­er is tes­ti­mo­ny to Ibn Sina’s achieve­ment.”

One of the defin­ing fea­tures of the text is its insis­tence on the prac­tice of med­i­cine as a sys­tem­at­ic sci­en­tif­ic pur­suit of equal mer­it to the the­o­riz­ing of it:

Some­one might say to us that med­i­cine is divid­ed into the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal parts and that, by call­ing it a sci­ence, we have con­sid­ered it as being all the­o­ret­i­cal. To this we respond by say­ing that some arts and phi­los­o­phy have the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal parts, and med­i­cine, too, has its the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal parts. The divi­sion into the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal parts dif­fers from case to case, but we need not dis­cuss these divi­sions in dis­ci­plines oth­er than med­i­cine. If it is said that some parts of med­i­cine are the­o­ret­i­cal and oth­er parts are prac­ti­cal, this does not mean that one part teach­es med­i­cine and the oth­er puts it into prac­tice – as many researchers in this sub­ject believe. One should be aware that the inten­tion is some­thing else: it is that both parts of med­i­cine are sci­ence, but one part is the sci­ence deal­ing with the prin­ci­ples of med­i­cine, and the oth­er with how to put those prin­ci­ples into prac­tice.

Of course, much of the med­ical the­o­ry in the Canon has been dis­proven, but it remains of keen inter­est to stu­dents of the his­to­ry of med­i­cine and of Euro­pean and Islam­ic intel­lec­tu­al cul­tur­al his­to­ry more gen­er­al­ly. Avi­cen­na tow­ers above his con­tem­po­raries, yet his work also bears wit­ness to the larg­er “intel­lec­tu­al cli­mate of his time,” as the site Med­ical His­to­ry Tour points out. He emerged from a milieu “shaped by cen­turies of trans­la­tion and cross-cul­tur­al schol­ar­ship” of Greek, Roman, Indi­an, Chi­nese, Per­sian, and Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture. “A rich Per­sian med­ical tra­di­tion began 200 years before Avi­cen­na.”

Nonethe­less, “how­ev­er the world came by the genius of Avi­cen­na, his influ­ence was last­ing,” with The Canon of Med­i­cine remain­ing a defin­i­tive “best prac­tices” guide to med­i­cine for cen­turies after its com­po­si­tion. See full scans of sev­er­al Ara­bic copies of the text at the Library of Congress’s World Dig­i­tal Library and read a full Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the mas­sive 5‑volume work, with its exten­sive chap­ters on def­i­n­i­tions, anato­my, eti­ol­o­gy, and treat­ments, at the Inter­net Archive.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

700 Years of Per­sian Man­u­scripts Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

How Ara­bic Trans­la­tors Helped Pre­serve Greek Phi­los­o­phy … and the Clas­si­cal Tra­di­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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