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From the Middle East, in the Middle Ages

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2005 - Autumn


An exhibit at the Sterling Memorial Library highlights the contributions to medicine of Muslim physicians.

When we check into a hospital, take our children to the pediatrician or undergo a surgical procedure, it’s likely we’re benefiting from the work of medieval Muslim doctors and scholars.

“Muslims’ Contributions to Medieval Medicine and Pharmacology,” an exhibit of manuscripts from the Medical Historical collection at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, was on display in Sterling Memorial Library’s exhibit corridor until September. The exhibit, said Simon Samoeil, curator of Sterling’s Near East Collection, was designed to “provide positive insight” into the important contributions made by medieval Muslims at a time of high tensions between our nation and areas of the Muslim world.

In the seventh century, when former empires such as those of the Greeks, Persians and Romans fell under Arab domain, the new Islamic empire inherited many scholarly disciplines, including the developing fields of medicine and pharmacology. Recognizing their importance, Islamic leaders had works from other languages translated into Arabic, so research and study could continue.

The exhibit includes some remarkable examples of these early texts, including an illustrated Persian treatise on human anatomy, with six pages of detailed drawings. There is also a human anatomy book that was translated from Greek into Arabic by the 11th-century scholar and physician Avicenna. “His textbook was used in the West until the mid-17th century,” Samoeil said.

Other artifacts in the exhibit include a medical dictionary and a book containing 31 chapters of practical information about hygiene, sexual intercourse and other topics. These Arabic translations of Greek scholarship led to later translations into Latin, Samoeil says, paving the way for Greek knowledge to become accessible to the scientists and scholars of the Renaissance.

In addition to these important translations, Muslims introduced new fields of medical research and clinical practice, including gynecology, embryology and a focus on the care of mothers and children. Samoeil said medieval Muslims saw the larger value in protecting the health of women. “Women are the mothers of men,” he said. “If the Arab empire was to flourish, the women needed to be healthy.”

Early Arabs also contributed to the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of diseases such as smallpox and measles, and Muslim doctors were the first to incorporate surgery, then a separate discipline, into the study of medicine and to develop its practice and techniques.

Perhaps the most concrete legacy is the structure of today’s hospitals, which follow the model of ninth-century Islamic hospitals. These early health care centers had open admission policies for patients of all economic backgrounds, regardless of sex, religion or ethnicity. They were run by a large administrative staff and organized into wards by gender and nature of illness. In addition, early Islamic hospitals pioneered the idea of having on-site pharmacies and training programs for students to get practical experience under the guidance of a physician.

Samoeil said the exhibit drew a favorable response from the Yale community and visitors. “The other day, I overheard three tourists,” he said. “One called out to another, ‘Come look at this. It’s amazing. I didn’t know the Arabs and the Muslims had done all this.’ ”

His goal in organizing the exhibit, he said, was to draw connections between the past and the present. “It’s important to do that,” he said. “When we look at modern materials and manuscripts, it’s important to understand how we got there, to see the connection with what came before.”

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