The Canon of Medicine  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
The Canon of Medicine (original title in Arabic: "qanun fil tibb") is a book by the Persian scientist Ibn Sina (Avicenna) in the 10th century. It is considered the most famous book in the history of medicine. The Canon of Medicine remained a medical authority for centuries. The Canon of Medicine is also known as the Qanun, which means law in Arabic and Persian. It set the standards for medicine in Europe for centuries, and is Avicenna's most well-renowned written work. The principles of medicine described by him ten centuries ago in this book, are still taught at UCLA and Yale University, among others, as part of the history of medicine.

Ibn Sina's compendium of medical knowledge guide to clinical teaching, is based upon the writings of Galen, but infused with Arabic medical lore and personal experience. The book explains the causes of health and disease. Ibn Sina believed that the human body cannot be restored to health unless the causes of both health and disease are determined.

He stated that medicine (tibb) is the science by which we learn the various states of the human body when in health and when not in health, and the means by which health is likely to be lost, and when lost, is likely to be restored. In other words, medicine is the science whereby health is conserved and the art whereby it is restored after being lost.

Avicenna regarded the causes of good health and diseases to be:

  1. The Material causes.
  2. The Elements.
  3. The Humors.
  4. The Variability of the Humors.
  5. The Temperaments.
  6. The Psychic Faculties.
  7. The Vital Force.
  8. The Organs.
  9. The Efficient Causes.
  10. The Formal Causes.
  11. The Vital Faculties.
  12. The Final Causes.

(There are many other sources that explain his concepts in depth and are accessible through the world-wide web in medical and Islamic sites.)

The Qanun distinguishes mediastinitis from pleurisy and recognises the contagious nature of phthisis (tuberculosis of the lung) and the spread of disease by water and soil. It gives a scientific diagnosis of ankylostomiasis and attributes the condition to an intestinal worm. The Qanun points out the importance of dietetics, the influence of climate and environment on health and the surgical use of oral anaesthetics. Ibn Sina advised surgeons to treat cancer in its earliest stages, ensuring the removal of all the diseased tissue. The Qanun 's materia medica considers some 760 drugs, with comments on their application and effectiveness. He recommended the testing of a new drug on animals and humans prior to general use.

Ibn Sina noted the close relationship between emotions and the physical condition and felt that music had a definite physical and psychological effect on patients. Of the many psychological disorders that he described in the Qanun, one is of unusual interest: love sickness! Ibn Sina is reputed to have diagnosed this condition in a Prince in Jurjan who lay sick and whose malady had baffled local doctors. Ibn Sina noted a fluttering in the Prince's pulse when the address and name of his beloved were mentioned. The great doctor had a simple remedy: unite the sufferer with the beloved.

The earliest known copy of the Canon of Medicine dated 1052 is held in the collection of the Aga Khan and is to be housed in the Aga Khan Museum planned for Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Avicenna's Canon of Medicine in Europe

The Arabic text of the Qanun was translated into Latin as Canon medicinae by Gerard of Cremona in the 12th century and into Hebrew in 1279. Henceforth the Canon served as the chief guide to medical science in the West and is said to have influenced Leonardo da Vinci. Its encyclopaedic content, its systematic arrangement and philosophical plan soon worked its way into a position of pre-eminence in the medical literature of Europe, displacing the works of Galen and becoming the text book for medical education in the schools of Europe. The text was read in the medical schools at Montpellier and Leuven as late as 1650, and Arnold C. Klebs described it as "one of the most significant intellectual phenomena of all times." In the words of Dr. William Osler, the Qanun has remained "a medical bible for a longer time than any other work". The first three books of the Latin Canon were printed in 1472, and a complete edition appeared in 1473. The 1491 Hebrew edition is the first appearance of a medical treatise in Hebrew and the only one produced during the 15th century. In the last 30 years of the 15th century it passed through 15 Latin editions.

In recent years, a partial translation into English was made.

See also




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