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Back To Vidyya Islamic Medieval Medical Manuscripts

Treasures Seen by the Public for the First Time

Medieval medicine went high-tech when the National Library of Medicine recently unveiled its illustrated catalog of Islamic medical manuscripts on the World Wide Web at

"The National Library of Medicine has one of the three greatest collections of Islamic medical manuscripts in the world (388 treatises in all), and some of them are the only ones in existence," says Dr. Emilie Savage-Smith, an American scholar from Oxford University and one of the world's foremost authorities on Islamic medicine.

Savage-Smith, who has prepared the illustrated catalog, said that a manuscript copied in 1094 containing a treatise written by the famous physician and clinician al-Razi (known to Europeans as Rhazes) is the crown jewel of the Library's collection. "It is believed to be the third oldest Arabic medical manuscript in the world," said Dr. Elizabeth Fee, chief of the History of Medicine Division. Beautifully scripted, the manuscript's pages are still in superb condition, as readable as they ever were.

The Library acquired its collection from various sources, including purchases made from a bequest of Dr. William F. Edgar, a physician who in 1849 had taken a wagon train over the Oregon Trail and settled in California.

Dr. Philip M. Teigen, who has coordinated the Library's 10- year project, which included an earlier exhibit and a symposium on Islamic medical manuscripts, says, "we then wanted to take the treasures of our Islamic Medicine collection and make them more widely available to the general public. Publishing them on the World Wide Web seemed to be the best way to reach the largest number of people." He notes that many of the manuscripts are beautifully illustrated and very appealing.

Savage-Smith has carefully examined all of NLM's Islamic medical manuscripts and the illustrated catalogue is the result of her nearly decade-long endeavor.

The online catalog includes an essay on each of the manuscripts and has links to a glossary of terms, illustrations, biographical material, and other pertinent information. It will be published in three segments. The first section, now on the Web, deals with medical encyclopedias. Subsequent sections will deal pharmaceuticals, plague tracts, veterinary medicine, and general hygiene. As many as 300 illustrations will be included in the catalog.

Islamic physicians, inspired by Hippocrates, Galen, and other Greek and Roman predecessors, made extensive efforts to understand the remarkably wide range of diseases they faced. In response to that challenge, they identified many new surgical, medical, and pharmaceutical treatments.

The manuscripts show that Islamic physicians treated a wide variety of ailments and diseases, including stomach diseases and hemorrhoids (very prevalent), promoted dental hygiene, and listed tips on how to improve sexual desire. There is a treatise on how to treat forgetfulness (mental exercises were recommended), and their techniques on eye surgery were so successful that some of them continued in use into the 20th century.

The Islamic achievements in this area, as well as in anatomy and surgery, led European teachers and practitioners to translate the hundreds of Arabic and Persian medical tracts into Latin and then into French, Italian, and English. In a very real sense, the European tradition of medical science and practice, which has now spread world-wide, owes a great debt to Avicenna, al-Nafis, Rhazis, Abulcasis and other Islamic practitioners and scholars.

"Much of our medical vocabulary comes from the Arabic," says Savage-Smith "and virtually all European medical manuscripts were based on the Islamic medical practices."

You can view the collection

The National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health, is the world's largest library of the health sciences.

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Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
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