Exhibition Review: Medicine in the Golden Age of Islam


The Royal College of Physicians (venue:  nr Regent’s Park in London) are currently hosting an exhibition about medicine in the ‘Golden Age of Islam’. The exhibition will be available to view until 25 October 2013 though viewing hours are restricted to office hours 09:00 – 17:00 Monday to Friday so you may need to visit during your lunch break just as I had to.

A pamphlet accompanying the exhibition states that:

“Islamic medicine drew heavily on ancient Greek knowledge, especially humoral pathology, as classified by the Roman physician, Galen. The story of Islamic medicine is one not only of transmission and translation, but also of innovation and change, evolving over the centuries into a truly sophisticated science.”

We are introduced to a number of Muslim giants of medicine including Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (died  circa 925 CE) of whom we learn that he was:

“…perhaps the greatest clinician of the medieval world. He drew heavily on the knowledge of earlier and contemporary physicians, as his Comprehensive Book (al-Kitab al-Hawi) illustrates.

“He distinguished between diseases not formerly recognised, such as smallpox and measles, and his Book for al-Mansur contains an experiment on an ape to test the toxicity of quicksilver. He used a control group to assess blood-letting as a treatment for brain fever, concluding that it was effective. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors were reading Rhazes’ work on the differential diagnosis for smallpox and measles in order to combat them.”

One interesting tidbit I found was that in much the same way as today we can read books such as Jamie Oliver’s Guides to great meals in 20 minutes, Razi had written a  book called Bur’ al-Sa’ah: Curing Within The Hour in which he listed treatments for headaches, toothaches and tinnitus amongst others.

The exhibition also features the work of Ibn Sina (980 – 1037: better known as Avicenna in the West) whose Canon of Medicine – a medical encyclopedia in five volumes – became the most successful medical work of the medieval period in the West and the East.

The exhibition – which is free – requires about 30 – 45 minutes to view properly.

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