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The Canon of Medicine

The Canon of Medicine is a book by Avicenna (Ibn Sina), considered the most famous single book in the history of medicine. Seeing that he lived in Persia in the 10th century it is hard to imagine that Canon of Medicine remains a reliable medical source today. The Canon of Medicine is also known as the Qanun, which means the law in Persian. It has set the standards for Medicine in Europe for centuries, and is the great Persians' well-renowned masterpiece. Through it Ibn Sina is now known to be the father of modern-day medicine. The principles of medicine described by him ten centuries ago in this book, are still taught at UCLA and Yale, among others, as part of the history of medicine.

In his book he determined the causes of health and diseases. 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 art 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 Arabic text of the Qanun 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 of Galen, 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 in Hebrew. In recent years, a partial translation into English was made. From the 12th-17th century, the Qanun served as the chief guide to Medical Science in the West and is said to have influenced Leonardo da Vinci. In the words of Dr. William Osler, the Qanun has remained "a medical bible for a longer time than any other work".

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