Islamic physicians in history

Yuhanna Ibn Masawayh

Arabic pharmacy (Saydanah) was recognised as a separate profession from medicine by the beginning of 800AD century.

This century not only saw the founding of, and an increase in the number of privately owned pharmacy shops in Baghdad and its vicinity, but also in other Muslim cities. Many of the pharmacists who managed them were skilled in the apothecary's art and quite knowledgeable in the compounding, storing, and preserving of drugs. Statesponsored hospitals also had their own dispensaries attached to manufacturing laboratories where syrups, electuaries, ointments and other pharmaceutical preparations were prepared on a relatively large scale. The pharmacists and their shops were periodically inspected by a government appointed official al-Muhtasib, and his aides. These officials checked weights and measures as well as the purity of the drugs used. Such supervision was intended to prevent the use of deteriorating compounded drugs and syrups and to safeguard the public.

This early rise and development of professional pharmacy in Islam – over four centuries before such development took place in Europe – was the result of three major factors: an increase in the demand for drugs and their availability on the market; professional maturity; and the outgrowth of intellectual responsibility by qualified pharmacists.

Around 800AD Muslim lands witnessed the richest period in literary productivity insofar as pharmacy and the healing arts were concerned. This prolific intellectual activity paved the way for a greater harvest in the succeeding four centuries of authorship. For pharmacy, manuals on materia medica and for instructing the pharmacist concerning the work and management of his shop were circulating in increasing numbers.

Among them was Abu Zakariya Yuhanna ibn Masawayh, a Persian physician from the academy of Gundishapur. Born in 777 AD into a family of physicians from Gundishapur, in western Iran, Ibn Masawayh (known to Europeans as Mesuë or filius Mesuë) became court physician to the caliph in Baghdad and director of a hospital there. He wrote medical treatises on a number of topics, including ophthalmology, fevers, headache, melancholia, diatetics, the testing of physicians, and medical aphorisms. Although a Christian, he wrote mainly in Syriac and Arabic.

He also composed a considerable number of Arabic medical monographs, on topics including fevers, leprosy, melancholy, dietetics, eye diseases, and medical aphorisms. The name Mesuë is associated with several influential Latin treatises, only some of which were actually written by Ibn Masawayh. Most notable was Daghal al-ain (Disorder of the eye), which is the earliest systematic treatise on ophthalmology still existing in Arabic. Another treatise is the Aphorisms, the Latin translation of which was very popular in the Middle Ages. He also translated several Greek medical works into Syriac.

It is believed Ibn Masawayh regularly held assembly where he consulted with patients and discussed subjects with pupils. Ibn Masawayh apparently attracted considerable audiences, having acquired a reputation for repartee.

 In his book on aromatic simples, the Latin title of which is Liber de simplicibus, Ibn Masawayh lists about 30 aromatics, their physical properties and pharmacological effects. On ambergris, far example, he explains that there are many types.

The best among them the blue or grey (greyamber) fatty as-salahiti is used mixed with the choicest of aromatic mixtures (ghaliyyahs, perfumes, or medical cosmetics) and in geriatric electuaries. Only vaguely did Ibn Masawayh know that ambergris originated from certain seafish (a concreation from the intestinal tract of the sperm whale, physeteridae found in tropical seas or on the shores).

Camphor, he reports with some uncertainty, originates in China and the wood and the crystalline substance was brought to Arab lands by trade through India. This substance was extensively used in Arabic medical therapy. Ibn Masawayh also recommended saffron for liver and stomach ailments.

He noted that sandalwood, whether yellow (the best), white, or red is brought from India where it is used in the manufacture of perfumes. In Islam it entered pharmaceutical preparations as early as 800AD, if not earlier.

It soon became associated with the profession: hence the pharmacist was called ‘assaydanani’ or ‘as-saydalani’ (he who sells or deals with sandalwood), while a pharmacy was known as ‘savdanah’. In his medical axioms, Ibn Masawayh recommended the use of only a few, wellknown medicinal plants which should be utilised with the aim of building up a natural resistance to diseases.

He urged physicians to prescribe one remedy for each disease, using empirical and analogous reasoning. He also stated that the physician who could cure by using only diet without drugs was the most successful and lucky. He died in Samarra in 857AD.

                                             Copyright © 2006 All Rights Reserved.