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Microbes

Microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts and fungi

Kidney

Reddish brown organs which get rid of waste urea from the body and balance the water and mineral ion concentration of the blood

Vein

Blood vessel which carries blood to the heart

700 - 1500 AD: Arabic medicines

For many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Arabic world was the centre of scientific and medical knowledge. Texts from Greece and Rome were translated into Arabic and studied by Islamic scholars. They developed and refined Hippocrates’ theories and Islamic physicians began to use the regulation of diet, exercise and the prescription of medicinal herbs in the treatment of their patients. Arabic pharmacists became skilled in the formulation of medicines from plants and minerals. Even though they did not know about microbes, they used alcohol to clean wounds which healed better and did not become infected.

Universal healthcare

Hospitals were not just for the wealthy. They treated rich and poor alike. Islamic hospitals of the time would not look out of place today, with medical and surgical wards as well as operating theatres and pharmacies for the dispensing of medicines. By 931 AD, large hospitals were involved in the training and licensing of doctors and pharmacists. Officials tested medicines to certify that they were safe and visited pharmacists to make sure that prescriptions were being made correctly. All this was at the time when medicine in Europe was still governed by religion and superstition.

Records show that Arabic doctors performed many different surgical operations including the removal of varicose veins, kidney stones and the replacement of dislocated limbs. They used sponges soaked in narcotic drugs which were placed over the patient's nose as early anaesthetics.

Spreading the word

Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna)

One of the most important medical books of its time was written by the physician Ali al-Husayn Abd Allah Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna).

His massive manuscript, called the Canon (Laws) of Medicine, was completed around 1030 AD and translated into Latin in the 12th Century. This encyclopaedia of medicine contained five books detailing the formulation of medicines, diagnosis of disorders, general medicine and detailed therapies. It continued to be a great influence in the development of medicine in medieval Europe for hundreds of years.

Binding board of Ibn Sina’s canon showing a doctor taking a woman’s pulse
(Wellcome Images)
Ibn Sina (Avicenna) teaching pharmacy to his pupils
(Wellcome Images)
Anatomical drawing from Ibn Sina’s canon (laws of medicine)
(Wellcome Images)

Question

How did medical procedures in the Arab world compare with those in Europe during the Middle Ages?

Arabic medical procedures and hospitals were far in advance of those in Europe. Indeed, there was nothing in Europe that we would recognise as a hospital whereas Arabic hospitals were structured in a similar way to current hospitals. Arabic surgical procedures were also more advanced with narcotics used as an early form of anaesthetic.