Caused by the gods?


Medicine as a profession is too streamlined although it has been a cumulative effort of different greats in the different fields of life throughout human history, comprising artisans, artists, butchers, magicians, herbalists etc. This is Part two of three installments that’ll give a brief overview of the aforementioned topic detailing various historical events, landmarks and personalities that have shaped this art we call medicine. Caused by the gods? We shall find out.
The beginning/ancient history – Part One
Renaissance era – Part Two
Modern era – Part Three

Renaissance Era

With the fall of the Roman empire and the gradual ascension of the Church as a world power came the gradual decline of medical development and transition into the era of superstition, and belief in the supernatural as the cause of all illnesses. With the burning and destruction of heathen structures seen as a most commendable work, many citadels of learning and storage of knowledge were burnt to the ground, including the great library of Alexandria and along with it many medical works of Galen, Hippocrates et al.
Luckily, this era saw the emigration of certain persons who brought the knowledge and works of Galen and Hippocrates to the Arab world. This was the GOLDEN AGE OF THE ISLAMIC WORLD. Many physicians stand out in this era, amongst them Avicienna and Rhazes.

THE ISLAMIC GOLDEN AGE (8th-14th century)

During the rule of the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) and the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the Islamic golden age marked a period of sharp development in Arabian history. This period was mostly known for the increase in the search for knowledge, translation of medical texts from the Greco-Roman era, Persian and other great medical texts to Arabic, and the institution of great libraries and cities of educational tourism, Baghdad and Bukhara being the major cities. As said, this period saw the emergence of great physicians as Avicenna and Rhazes.

AVICENNA (Ibn Sina or Abu Ali Sina; c. 980 – June 1037)

He was a Persian polymath and one of the great icons of the Islamic golden age. He is commonly referred to as the ‘Father of modern medicine’ having revolutionalised the medical practice, inventing certain ideas. A renowned writer and philosopher, he authored a great number of books. One of particular medical interest is the CANON OF MEDICINE, a book that went on to become one of the standard medical textbooks in both the Islamic and Western worlds for up to 400 years, up until the 18th century. It is still in use in certain medical practices in India. Thus Avicienna’s works include: The Canon of Medicine, 1025, and The Book of Healing, 1027.
“Medicine is the science by which we learn the various states of the body: in health and when not in health; the means by which health is likely to be lost; and, when lost, is likely to be restored. In other words, it is the art concerned with health and the art by which it is restored after being lost”. – Excerpt from CANON OF MEDICINE.
The book contained various diagnoses and treatment procedures for various diseases, and a concise overview of the anatomy and physiology of most body parts.

RHAZES (Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi; 854 CE Died 932 or 925 C)

An early proponent of experimental medicine, Rhazes is known as the father of paediatrics and pioneer of ophthalmology. Just like most physicians of his era, Rhazes had many areas of interest, philosophy and alchemy being some of them. He made numerous contributions to the use of chemicals in medical treatments, being the first to produce sulfuric acid and apply the knowledge of organic and inorganic chemistry to his work. He is credited as the first to find the cause of smallpox.
Described by the historian, Edward Granville Browne as “probably the greatest and most original of all Muslim physicians, and one of the most prolific as an author”, Razi’s contributions to the field of medicine are fully on par with those of Avicenna, who came almost a century later. Al-Razi also holds the distinction of being a major contributor to the field of pharmacy and alchemical medicine at a time pharmacy was coming into its own as a separate and distinct profession.


For most of the period between 900-1200, the Western world was to be enveloped in a lot of superstitious theories in medicine and a gradual decline in the quality of knowledge. The building of the first university in Europe, University of Saldern, marked a gradual improvement in the medical revolution. Even with this, it was not until the 1500s that the medical renaissance in the Western world took place. Some physicians stood out in this period including Paracelsus, Vesalius, William Henry.


“The dose makes the poison” – a statement quite common among medical professionals dealing with pharmaceuticals. Paracelsus is credited with the above statement and is fondly known as the ‘Father of toxicology’. One of the very first to shrug off religious orthodoxy in medical practice and emphasize the need for maximum observation, he argued with many of the established authorities and was said to have burnt the books of Galen and Avicenna (Nice, imagine doing that with your massive anatomy texts) just to prove a point. Well, these acts and some abusive statements brought a lot of enmity between him and other medics during his period. He went on to fully incorporate the use of chemicals in medical works – an improvement from the days of Rhazes.


Andreas Vesalius (31 December 1514 –15 October 1564) was a 16th-century Flemish anatomist, physician. On the day of his graduation, he was immediately offered the chair of surgery and anatomy (Ahem!). Vesalius was an exceptional physician and anatomist. Considered the father of human anatomy, he encouraged a hands-on approach to the study of anatomy through dissection, mostly of condemned criminals. This was a huge break away from the medieval practices.
Like many of his Renaissance brothers, he disputed and ultimately proved most of Galen’s work wrong in the study of anatomy after concise dissection of various corpses, going on to prove that Galen’s work were based on the dissection of animals. His work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem or the Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body, printed in 1543 was the first textbook on human anatomy and maintained a great influence in the medical world.
‘I’d rather err with Galen’ was a medieval way of saying ‘your work is shit’. I might be exaggerating though but this was the reaction of most physicians of William Harvey’s time in the 17th century when he published his Magnus opus ‘DE MODU CORDIS’ (On circulation of blood), a book detailing mostly the systemic circulatory system and going against Galen’s long-held view: that the liver produced blood and said blood eventually evaporated from the body. He built his work upon the research of MICHEAL SERVETUS and IBN AL-NAFIS, who had initially worked on the pulmonary circulation. He was able to give a broad view of the circulatory system but was not able to find the link between the veins and arteries.
This problem was solved later on by the physician, Marcello Malpighi, who with his newly developed microscope could identify the capillaries.


During the above-discussed periods, most women were mainly resigned to the role of midwives and nurses. Catholic nuns were mostly involved in health care in Europe.
Nonetheless, there are recorded accounts of women during this period who broke barriers in different areas and wrote a lot of books. Prominent amongst them were Dorotea Bucca (1360–1436), who held the Chair of philosophy and medicine for over 40 years at the University of Bologna; and Trota of Salerno, whose book, Trotula became quite popular in Europe during this period.
Though there is no recorded female physician in the ISLAMIC medical practice of those times, there are mentions of nurses serving as physicians in cases involving women and direct contact with them.
A series written by Okoro Chinedu, a medical student at the University of Ibadan.


History of Medicine, Rochelle Forrester
Wikipedia: History of medicine
University of Birmingham, Cadbury reaseach library: history of medicine.
Oxford handbook of the history of medicine.

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  1. Aw, this was a very nice post. In idea I would like to put in writing like this additionally – taking time and precise effort to make a very good article… however what can I say… I procrastinate alot and by no means appear to get one thing done.

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