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  • 8/23/2005

Canon of Medicine

by Avicenna

The traditional concept of medicine, as presented here, differs profoundly from the view held in the modern world because in the traditional view, the spacesmeridians, channels within the body and what flows through them are of more significance in causing illness than the shapes or organs. That is, the emphasis is on that which flows through the channels as the place of the soul.

The Canon is the clear and ordered Summa of all the medical knowledge of Ibn Sina's time, augmented from his own observations. Volume 1 (of 5 volumes) translated here was the best medical textbook available in Europe in its Latin translation for 700 years. With notes from St. Thomas Aquinas who said:Anything Avicenna says is true, it presents traditional medicine at its best and is far more accessible than the works of Hippocrates and Galen.

The Canon is, of course, by far the largest, most famous and most important of Avicenna's works. The work contains about one million words and like most Arabic books, is elaborately divided and subdivided. The main division is into five books, of which the first deals with general principles; the second with simple drugs arranged alphabetically; the third with diseases of particular organs and members of the body from the head to the foot; the fourth with diseases which though local in their inception spread to other parts of the body, such as fevers and the fifth with compound medicines.

The Canon distinguishes mediastinitis from pleurisy and recognizes 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 Canon points out the importance of dietetics, the influence of climate and environment on health and the surgical use of oral anaesthetics. Avicenna advised surgeons to treat cancer in its earliest stages, ensuring the removal of all the diseased tissue. The Canon'smateria 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.

Avicenna 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 Canon, one is of unusual interest: love sickness! Avicenna is reputed to have diagnosed this condition in a Prince in Jurjan who lay sick and whose malady had baffled local doctors. Avicenna 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 Arabic text of the Canon was published in Rome in 1593 and was therefore one of the earliest Arabic books to see print. It was translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona in the 12th century. This 'Canon', with its encyclopaedic content, its systematic arrangement and philosophical plan, soon worked its way into a position of pre-eminence in the medical literature of the age displacing the works ofGalen, al-Razi and al-Majusi, and becoming the text book for medical education in the schools of Europe. In the last 30 years of the 15th century it passed through 15 Latin editions and one Hebrew. In recent years, a partial translation into English was made. From the 12th-17th century, the Canon served as the chief guide to Medical Science in the West and is said to haveinfluenced Leonardo da Vinci. In the words of Dr. William Osler, the Canon has remained"a medical bible for a longer time than any other work".

About the Author
Avicenna (980-1037 CE) was known asthe Prince of Physicians in the Persian empire of his time. In 1012 he began writing this, his great medical text. He lived for fifteen years in Isfahan and died in Hamadan.

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