Medstars’ Heroes: Avicenna | The Canon of Medicine


Persian physician, Ibn Sīna (or Avicenna as he is often known in the West), is regarded as one of the most influential physicians, philosophers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age. Avicenna’s medical encyclopaedia, the Canon of Medicine, is widely thought to be his most important medical contribution – particularly his analysis of the heart. Published in 1025, it remained the standard medical text in the Islamic world and across Europe for more than six centuries – and so it’s no wonder Avicenna has been hailed the father of modern medicine...

Avicenna
Ibn Sīna (or Avicenna)

Early Life

Born in the summer of 980 CE and growing up in Afšana (a village near Bukhara in what is present-day Uzbekistan) it’s safe to say Avicenna’s childhood and teenage years were a lot more productive than perhaps many of our own. I can’t be the only one who spent much of their time playing knock and run, climbing trees and avoiding doing the washing up?

Meanwhile, Avicenna was learning Indian arithmetic from a grocer, reading and memorising the entire Quran and pursuing an intense study of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. He began studying medicine age 16 and by 18 he was a fully qualified physician.

Career

Avicenna achieved wide acclaim for his ability to treat and cure patients – often doing so without payment. He was appointed physician to the Emir, Nuh II, after curing him of a life-threatening disease and along with this appointment came access to the Royal Library of the Samanids. It was here he was able to mingle with the patrons of learning who frequented it, continuing to develop his ever-growing knowledge of, well, pretty much everything!

After the fall of the Samanid dynasty, Avicenna moved around in pursuit of further opportunities to learn and write and he is thought to have authored over 100 books. From astronomy to medicine, geometry to art – Avicenna was your man. (And seemingly the figure of speech “Jack of all trades, master of none” did not apply here.)

The Canon of Medicine

Avicenna's Cannon of Medicine
The Canon of Medicine (image taken from World Digital Library)

Of the works that survived, Qanun fil-Tibb (or the Canon of Medicine as it is known in the West), is perhaps the most revered. This book is a five-volume medical encyclopaedia completed in 1025. In order to write his Canon, Avicenna pulled together his own experiences and compiled the teachings of his predecessors: Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. This seminal work was translated into Latin in the 12th century and used as the primary text for European medical courses until the 17th century.

The 11th section of the third book is dedicated to the discussion of various kinds of heart diseases, their symptoms, effects, and treatment. Sīna’s description of cardiac diseases was logically presented perhaps for the first time in the history of medicine – and would later provide the basis for modern-day cardiology.

Avicenna gave the first correct explanation of pulsation, after he refined Galen’s theory of the pulse. Notably, Avicenna was the pioneer of examining the pulse using the wrist – a technique still used in modern medicine.

He also presented a detailed analysis of palpitations. Interestingly, Avicenna was the first person to diagnose lovesickness! When treating a patient, he would feel their pulse whilst reciting aloud the name of provinces, districts, towns, streets and people. If he picked up on changes in the patient’s pulse when reciting a certain location, he decided the patient was in love with a girl who lived there. I wonder who or what would get our own heart’s racing?

Interconnection of physical and psychological health

Truly ahead of his time, Avicenna created a system of medicine that today we would call ‘holistic’. John Urquhart, professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, states ‘Ibn Sīna saw medicine and surgery as one.’

He understood that one’s physical and psychological health were interconnected, and could be influenced by factors such as diet and exercise. He discussed this approach when considering the prevention of cardiac diseases within the Canon and it was also emphasised in another of his pivotal books “The treatise on cardiac drugs” or “Kitab al-Adviyt ol-Qalbiye”.

Avicenna
Avicenna is only one of many influential key thinkers from the Islamic Golden Age

Legacy

It’s clear Avicenna’s influence was far-reaching and long-lasting. That he wrote the Canon in such detail without the highly sophisticated instruments and resources available today is a feat in itself. And his work is only one example of how the medieval Islamic world changed medicine and rational scientific thinking, laying the foundations for the future development of mathematics, cartography, construction and astronomy.