Islamic physicians in history

Al-Nafis challenged conventional thinking

Syrian Ibn Al-Nafis became famous as a physician, author and original thinker, who challenged accepted medical beliefs and advanced medical science with his contributions.

Ala'El-Deen Ibn Al-Nafis was born in 1208 AD in Kersh, a small town near Damascus, Syria. He studied medicine, law and philosophy in Damascus before moving to Cairo, where he was to spend the rest of his life. He became renowned as a physician, a philosopher, a historian and an expert on Shafi'i School of Jurisprudence. He was the first chief of Al- Mansuri Hospital in Cairo and became the dean of the School of Medicine in 1284. He was a prolific writer of medical tracts and specialist in treatment of eye diseases.

As head of Al Mansuri he used to start his day after dawn prayers by making rounds at the hospital, followed by case discussions with students and colleagues, then hospital administration. His evenings were spent reading, writing and discussing medicine and philosophy with frequent scholar guests at his home in El-Hussein District in Old Cairo.

During his long life he was a prolific author, with his last and most ambitious work, Al-Shamil fi al-Tibb, a 300-volume encyclopedia, was left unfinished by his death. While he wrote with authority and innovative thought about philosophy and theology, his major contribution lies in medicine. His approach involved writing detailed commentaries on early works, critically evaluating them and adding his own original contribution.

His foremost contribution was his accurate description of the blood's circulatory system, which was rediscovered by modern science after a lapse of three centuries. He was the first to correctly describe the constitution of the lungs and gave a description of the bronchi and the interaction between the human body's vessels for air and blood. Also, he elaborated the function of the coronary arteries as feeding the cardiac muscle, in direct contradiction of the accepted beliefs of Galen (131-210) and the eminent Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980- 1037).

Galen had described how he believed blood passed from the right side of the heart to the left side through minute openings in the septum of the heart, then it mixed with air from the lungs, and was subsequently distributed to the whole body. For centuries this was the prevalent belief and no one, including the Arab physicians and eminent writer Ibn Sina, challenged this view. Until Ibn Al-Nafis wrote his conclusions. He stated in unmistakable terms that ... the blood from the right chamber of the heart must arrive at the left chamber, but there is no direct pathway between them. The thick septum of the heart is not perforated and does not have visible pores as some people thought or invisible pores as Galen thought. The blood from the right chamber must flow through the vena arteriosa (pulmonary artery) to the lungs, spread through its substance, where it mixes with air, pass through the arteria venosa (pulmonary vein) to reach the left chamber of the heart....

Ibn Al-Nafis's works integrated the then existing medical knowledge and enriched it, but the significance of his ideas was not really understood during his time, and was probably unknown by physicians in Europe as only one of his books was translated into Latin at that stage. It was around 300 years after his original writings, that some of Ibn al-Nafis's work was translated into Latin by Andrea Alpago of Belluno in 1547. His important observations then became available in Europe shortly before European physicians, such as Michael Servetus, made the same discoveries regarding blood circulation!

Information courtesy Dr Sharif Kaf Al-Ghazal, plastic surgeon, England

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