Ibn Sina
Ibn Sina Image Credit: Supplied

In his prologue to The Canterbury Tales written in the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer identifies four Arab physicians as authorities for medical students to learn from: Jesu Haky (Bin Eisa), Razi (Al Razi, or Rhazes), Avycen (Bin Sina or Avicenna) and Averrois (Bin Rashid or Averroes). These Arab doctors were regarded as among the greatest medical authorities of the ancient world and the European Middle Ages, physicians whose textbooks were used in European medical schools, and would be for centuries to come. First collecting, then translating, then augmenting and finally codifying the classical Greco-Roman heritage that Europe had lost, Arab physicians of the 8th to 11th century laid the foundations of the institutions and the science of modern medicine.

The Arab and Islamic world housed some of the first and most advanced hospitals from the 8th century, notably in Baghdad and Cairo, with women doctors and nurses working there along with their male colleagues.

According to Professor Peter Pormann from the University of Manchester, too few people realise that European and Arab doctors were part of the same medical tradition, which played a pivotal role in the development of modern medicine. “Arabic was the scientific language, which united doctors 850 year ago and which contributed to a medical discourse that went beyond country and creed,” he said in a paper published by the university.

For instance, the minute clinical observations of the clinician Al Razi, who once used a control group to test a medical procedure, are a 850-year-old blueprint for how doctors work today. Al Razi, who ran the Baghdad hospital in the late 800s and early 900s, was the first author known to have written a book about children’s diseases. He also explained the difference between smallpox and measles: This helped doctors diagnose the diseases.

Similarly, Bin Sina (also known as Avicenna), wrote a huge medical encyclopaedia known as the Canon of Medicine. It collected the knowledge of ancient Greek and the Islamic world, and was used as the standard medical textbook for European doctors until the 17th century. Bin Nafis wrote about the circulation of blood around the body in the 13th century, 300 years before this was known in the West. And Al Zaharwi (Albucasis) wrote an encyclopaedia called Al Tasirif, which included a volume called ‘On Surgery’ — the first medical book to contain pictures of surgical tools.