Historian gives thanks to medieval Arab medics

5 March 2012
Galen. Courtesy of the Wellcome library

Galen. Courtesy of the Wellcome library

One of the nation’s leading medical historians has acknowledged the extent of Western medicine’s debt to medieval Arab doctors in a new book.

Professor Peter E Pormann from The University of Manchester says too few people realise European and Arab doctors were part of the same medical tradition which played a pivotal role in the development of medicine as we know it.

“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.

“Jew, Christian and Moslem worked together in an openness within medicine which more or less has continued to this day.”

The minute clinical observations of the clinician al-Rāzī, he says - who even once used a control group to test a medical procedure - are a 850-year-old blueprint for how doctors work today.

Al-Rāzī was one of the many clinicians to be inspired by Arabic translations, he says, making great strides in their understanding of medicine and forming the basis of what we know today.

De Gruyters publishes Epidemics in Context this month, edited by Professor Pormann, which casts new light on the translated commentaries of one of the books by Hippocrates, the father of medicine, called the Epidemics.

His book examines the ninth and tenth century Arab medics who translated and refined the work of Greek physician,surgeon and philosopher Galen, written 1,800 years ago.

Galen’s commentaries on Hippocrates, are still considered to be among the most important works in medical literature.

Professor Pormann said: “Both Hippocrates’ Epidemics and Galen’s commentary on them constitute milestones in the development of clinical medicine.

“Galen produced an extensive commentary on this text, as did other medical authors writing in Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew.

“But it’s the Arabic tradition which is particularly rich, with more than a dozen commentaries extant in over a hundred manuscripts.

“These Arabic commentaries did not merely contain scholastic debates, but constituted important venues for innovation and change.