Tuesday, May 28, 2013

570-1070: Arabs save medicine

As we study medicine it's essential to understand that one author, one physician, one scientists, cannot make accomplishments in medicine without the accumulated knowledge of all who came before him.  Lacking such wisdom, no progress in medicine can be made.  Stated another way, it would be impossible to hunt for cures without having prior knowledge of such cures.  

Lacking access to knowledge, every person must start from scratch, and by the time he passes away he'd  learn no more than the men before him.  Thanks to writings, and schools, one man can be taught all ancient wisdom in a few years.  Instead of spending a lifetime relearning old wisdom, he can now study something new.  He can think of, invent and discover new things.  

When the last rung of the Roman Empire collapsed in 476 A.D., the west cast aside all such accumulated wisdom in favor of the Bible.  This, perhaps with the help of the Black plague, helped send western civilization -- mainly Eastern Europe -- back to a primitive era where the only medicine was religion.  All other knowledge, including medical knowledge, was the antithesis of the road to heaven.

During the same time western civilization was turning a blind eye to wisdom, Islamic nations were becoming united by Islamism under the name of Muhammad.  By their new religion the Arabs, Muslims, ultimately gained control of Egypt, Syria, Persia, Northern Africa, Islands of Sicily, Rhodes, and Crete. They even gained control of Spain in 720.  (1, page 122)

Similar to Christians, Arabic civilization believed the Koran contained all necessary wisdom, with all other knowledge being "superfluous," proven by the destruction of Alexandrian libraries and schools during the Egyptian conquest. Yet it is believed that the people of this Arabic civilization, even though they had a newly created language, were so poorly educated they couldn't even read their own Koran. (1, page 122, 125)

This changed during the life of Mohamet, of whom, "according to Islam, was the last messenger of Allah."  He lived from 570-632, according to dictionary.com.  Mohamet wanted to inspire his people to read, and so he told his people he obtained his wisdom after inspiration from heaven.  It was this encouragement that inspired the education of the Arabic civilization.  (1, page 124-125)

Mohamet told the story of how Gabriel came down from Heaven and said to him: (1, page 124)
Read -- added the angel -- in the name of God, the Creator.
He formed man by uniting the two sexes.
Read in the name of the adorable God.
He taught man the use of the pen.
He filled the soul with the light of science. (1, page 124)
So by the time Spain was conquered by the Arabs, learning was encouraged by Arabic leaders.  Ancient writings preserved in Egypt and Spain were transcribed to Arabic and studied by anyone eager to learn. 

Among the people driven from Rome in the 5th century were the Nestorians.  They were the followers of Nestorius (386-450) who was chosen to be Patriarch (Archbishop) of Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius II (401-450). He was consecrated in 428 and almost immediately started to make an impression.  In 430 he was condemned for heresy by a majority of his fellow bishops.  The condemnation was ratified by Theodosius and confirmed by Pope Sixtus III (died 440).  He retired to private life, although in 435 he was banished to the Oasis of Upper Egypt.  (3)(6, page 51)

His followers were allowed refuge in Persia. They established a school at Edessa in Mesopotamia, which was, according to historian Thomas Bradford, the "Athens of Syria.  It became the home of many scholars.  Many Greek and Latin works were translated into Syriac... Here on the Euphrates learning once more found a home.  A college and several schools were established." (6, page 51)

Bradford said the "Nestorians were given free exercise of their religion, and they were entrusted with the education of the children of the great Mohammedan families.  He said:
The Nestorians were the depositories of the old Greek medical knowledge. They revered the old names, and collected with great assiduity all the works on medical topics of all the former schools. Pupils hastened to their schools from all directions, and they were able to study practical medicine in a public hospital, probably the first institution of the kind... And this was the commencement of the great school of the future at Bagdhad. (2, page 51)
Speaking of Baghdad, another person who helped advance medicine in Persia was Almanzor (938-1002).  Bradford said Almanzor was responsible for the establishment of Baghdad and the establishment of the first Baghdad college.  He said: (2, page 57)
All the scholars rejoiced, and dreamed of a new Alexandria. Bagdad, the home of the caliphs, the city of the Arabian Nights, city of magnificance, and capital of the Saracens, was situated on the west bank of the Tigris river. In the old days its population was about 2,000,000. It is said that the caliph Almanzor was attacked by a dangerous disease, and sent for a physician who had been of the Nestorian school. Being restored to health by this physician, the caliph learned the value of the healing art, and became a patron of knowledge. Almanzor now made his new and beautiful city the home of the arts and sciences. He invited all the philosophers to visit him, no matter of what religion. It was not long before the cultivators of mathematics, astronomy, medicine and general literature abounded at the court of Almanzor. A medical college was established; there were public hospitals and laboratories for the benefit of students. So great was the culture of the medical faculty that power was given to it to examine all persons who intended to devote themselves to the study of medicine. So great was the number of professors and students who flocked to that centre of learning that at one time it contained six thousand professors and students. Almanzor enriched his new city with a great number of works on medicine, astronomy and philosophy, which he caused to be translated from the Greek. He had the works of Aristotle, Galen and Ptolemy translated, and these labors were continued by his successors.  (2, page 57-58)
Learned scholars banished from Europe in the 6th century were allowed to take refuge in Persia.  They were allowed to continue their studies and even set up schools where they became teachers.  When Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century, ancient writings were transcribed and taught to Arabic scholars, who absorbed the wisdom eagerly, paying special attention to the works of Aristotle and Galen. To facilitate teaching they even set up hospitals.  (1, page 123)

The importance of education was appreciated so much that a school of medicine was set up in Baghdad.  "So Great was the estimation in which their learning and skill were held, that, notwithstanding the intolerant spirit of Mohammedans, they were permitted the free excess of their religion, and were entrusted with the classical instruction of those of the Moslemin whose education was most cared for.  Aristotle, Pliney, Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Galen, and other element authors (were translated to Syriac, Hebrew and Arabic)." (1, page 124)

Before this time the medical profession was open to all who chose to participate in it.  The Arabs passed laws requiring a diploma from a medical school.  Greek and Roman physicians gathered their own herbs and medicinal supplies from grocers and created their own internal remedies.  The Arabs were the first to create a separate profession, the druggist, who was responsible for creating and preparing medicine. (1, page 124)

The pharmacy profession was established.  They created rules for preparing drugs, which was an advancement to the old system where each physician had his own cook book of medicinal recipes.  The first pharmacopoeia (book of drugs) was created.  (1, page 123)

The Arabs also conquered Spain, and it became the most prosperous county in the world.  "Agriculture, commerce, manufacturers, wealth and population are represented to have flourished to such a degree... that, in reading accounts left by historians, as suspicion of oriental exaggeration is often forced upon the  mind.  It is not, therefore, surprising that, in speaking of the Arabs, the Spaniards of that time are represented as saying: 'They have taken our land, but they have covered it with gold.'" (1, page 128)

While other countries in Europe were on the decline, Spain became the "literary and scientific sceptre.  Seventy libraries were opened in Cordova, The medical schools were so great people came from all over the world to be educated.  Even Christian princes in need of medical help traveled there and trusted their lives to the Arabic physicians.  (1, page 128)

With the treasures of the ancient world available to the conquerors of Persia, they were now thrust to the "head of the scientific world."  (1, page 124)  Such was the way for the next 500 years, until this prosperous Arab world came to a halt.  They were driven from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, and they then sunk back into the world of ignorance. (1, page 128)

So we can honestly say that we owe true thanks to the Arabs of the middle ages for saving medical wisdom.  They borrowed medical knowledge from the ancient world, improved upon it, and returned it to the western world of which it came.

Since the fall of Arabian medicine sometimes during the end of the 13th century, "Arabia has been in mental darkness and superstition,"  said historian Thomas Bradford in 1898.  While eastern civilization moved into a dark ages of medicine, western civilization moved out of theirs. (2, page 77)

  1. Fourgeaud, V.J, "Historical Sketches: Medicine among the Arabs: XXI, Intnroduction," Pacific medical and surgical journal, vol. 7, ed. V.J. Fourgeaud and J.F. Morse, 1864, San Francisco, Thompson and Company, pages 122-130
  2. Bradford, Thomas Lindsley, writer, Robert Ray Roth, editor, “Quiz questions on the history of medicine from the lectures of Thomas Lindley Bradford M.D.,” 1898, Philadelphia, Hohn Joseph McVey
  3. "The Heresiarch," Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10755a.htm, accessed 10/29/13

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