Medicinal advancement is one of the basic factors that contributed to the world being controlled and ultimately ruled by Homo Sapiens. Humans, coming to the top of the ladder of evolution, have covered an arduous journey, though due to a very small mutation in their brain cells that somehow allowed them to think and construct ideas, which latter on served to be the basis of them becoming the rulers of the world. Prior to advancements in the field of medicine, human beings had a lot of challenges to face in the form of diseases to survive in this world. We can say that, in a way, being unaware of various virulent and disastrous pathogens, human beings had an enemy, later known as pathogens, that they were completely oblivious of. As a result, they attributed any kind of sudden illness or death to some supernatural forces or in common parlance, spirits.
Arguably, the biggest blessing that has been bestowed on human beings in their history of thousands of years is the Cognitive Revolution. Harari argues in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that it was this Cognitive Revolution that enabled Homo Sapiens, as a species, to use their brains, think rationally, reach out to every continent, gain power and ultimately rule over the entire world. The point behind mentioning this cognitive revolution is that it allowed human beings to think logically and come up with certain possible solutions for many of the disastrous pathogens and diseases, ending up providing a pathway to work upon medicinal advancements.
Like any other form of progress, this advancement in medicines also took a lot of time, trial and errors, many misunderstandings, many wrong ideas, some of them leading to very undesired results, but all eventually – though slowly and steadily – led to advancements in the medical field. It is equally important to place the role of medicine in the social context within which it is practiced. A significant turning point in the way diseases are diagnosed, treated or prevented has the potential to extend and save lives.
Contributions to the field of medicine have been rendered by many different personalities, some belonging to the East and some to the West, some independently and some building upon the prior contributions of father, teacher or husband/wife at their will, but all of them had a single common aim, that was to contribute to the wellbeing of humanity and making human beings able to live a more expanded life, free of diseases. This single aim, against a common enemy – deadly diseases in this case – unites all the personalities that contributed to the advancement in the field of medicine. In our case, the focus is on the person named in the West as Avicenna and commonly known as Bu Ali Sina or Abu Ali Sina.
Bu Ali Sina
Bu Ali Sina, popularly known in west as Avicenna, was a great physician, philosopher, encyclopedist and astronomer of his time. Apart from his expertise in other fields, the contribution which is of our concern and the topic of our discussion is his contributions to the field of medicine. Born in Bukhara in 980 AD, he was a greatly gifted human being, who apart from his religious excellence, had also great expertise in medicine from a very early age of his life.
When we talk about his study of medicine, it is said that he started his medicinal education from the age of thirteen. With the passage of time, his expertise grew in medicine and thus his expertise was brought to the attention of the sultan, due to his contribution in curing the disease that the Sultan was suffering from. It is said that on the sultan’s asking, Sina asked for permission to access the sultan’s library, to continue his research and studies over there. There is a great saying by Bu Ali Sina about medicine: “Medicine is the science by which we learn the various states of the human body, in health, when not in health, the means by which health is likely to be lost, and when lost, is likely to be restored to health.”
Books And Bu Ali Sina
The contributions of Bu Ali Sina to the field of medicine are very great, but here today, due to the limitation of space, we will focus our attention to his two most important contributions: those in the book Canon and those on various heart diseases in his heart-related book. Our society has this tendency to attribute certain specific things to certain specific personalities, so when you hear about that personality, the first thing that comes to your mind is the one attributed to him. In our case, The Canon is the book or work that first comes to mind when we talk about Bu Ali Sina.
In the entirety of his life, he wrote nearly 100 books – only one of which was this, his most famous one.
This book compiles the knowledge available from ancient times to the medieval era with great clarity. It is his most renowned book of all. Unani medicine is said to have its basis in this very book.
The Canon remained the principal authority in the medical field over centuries in Asia as well as Europe. It has been praised by numerous personalities. For instance, William Osler describes the Canon as the most famous medical textbook ever written. It was a kind of medical bible for many for the longest period of time, written at the age of 21. It was translated first to Latin in the 12th century AD.
Throughout history, some of the very deadliest diseases entered humans’ bodies via the soil or water, and unknowingly it led to numerous health problems, even death at times. It was Bu Ali Sina who highlighted this spread of diseases via soil and water to a greater extent. Moreover, psychology has a greater role to play in human affairs. You have this feeling of fear when you don’t know what the reality is, and this was the reason that early humans ascribed all the unknowing happenings to some supernatural forces. Bu Ali Sina, at that time, was the man who told his readers about the connection between psychology and human health in his Canon. In addition to these, he also recognised the contagious nature of tuberculosis in the Canon.
Although Bu Ali Sina made advances in pharmacology and in clinical practice, his greatest contribution was probably in the philosophy of medicine. He created a system of medicine that today we would call ‘holistic,’ and in which physical and psychological factors, drugs and diet were combined in treating patients. When we focus on the pharmacological side or aspect of this book, it described around 760 drugs and served as the most authentic Materia Medica of that era. Apart from all these, according to Desnos, most of the diseases of the kidneys and bladder can be recognised in the systemic classification of renal diseases and the accounts of bladder diseases given by Ibn Sina in the Canon. He was also the first to point out the fact that hematuria may be due to causes outside the urinary system, for example, blood diseases.
Cardiac diseases and Bu Ali Sina
Bu Ali Sina has another fabulous work to his name, i.e. the book on drugs for cardiac diseases. Among the diseases of the heart mentioned in this treatise are difficulty in breathing, palpitations and syncope. Moreover, he has described the effects of some psychological diseases like depression, stress and anxiety on cardiovascular function. In this treatise, he mentions different kinds of heart problems. Apart from that he analyses the psychological relation of human psychology with heart diseases. For instance, he argues that depression, anxiety and stress have their role to play in heart-related problems. Since this book was the effort of a human being, Bu Ali Sina, in the 11th century AD, we must look into it via the lens of the past rather than modern world – and only then we will be able to know about the importance and value of his work and contributions.
Having said this, we cannot even argue that his work was restricted or confined just to the past, and therefore is of no use today. Even today, we use some very important techniques that have been mentioned by Bu Ali Sina. For instance, at your home, if a family member catches a fever, the first thing that almost all of us do is to hold their wrist, checking the pulse rate and ultimately knowing the level of fever that a person is suffering from. Who is the founder of this valuable method? The answer is Bu Ali Sina. He was the person who emphasised the monitoring of the pulse rate.
Coming back to the point, in his book related to the heart, he argues that since the heart is a most vital organ, the physician must make sure to treat it with great will and all clarity needed. Moreover, this book. also highlights various drugs needed in treatment of heart diseases, along with their dosage.
Many other inventions are ascribed to Bu Ali Sina. Most prominent of them is the invention of the catheter having rounded tips. This was to ensure a gentle procedure for the patient who suffered from disturbances in urine. Moreover, he invented a very useful procedure to test the efficacy of drugs at that time. It included the matching of quality of drugs with the severity of the disease and also the method of checking for the results many times in order to ensure the exact precise result.
It might seem very simplistic in nature today but back then, in the 11th century, it was a very vital and profound method in itself. Using Ibn Sina’s ideas help scientists to choose better drugs with a historical background to reduce the cost of therapies and research projects.
In a nutshell, in the vast expanse of human history, it was medicinal achievements and advancements that made humans able to counter many of the deadliest diseases and enabled them to live a more prosperous and extended life. Many valuable personalities played their role in this regard, but one of them, who usually goes unnoticed, was Bu Ali Sina, who had some very precious and valuable contributions to his name. In our schools, students are taught various books containing information about personalities, and often they are restricted to either Western philosophers or some other South Asian political leaders.
What I believe is that teaching students from an early age about the Muslim philosophers and their contributions to human progress is vital in our era.
Avicenna is fairly known in the world medical history. But we are currently in the middle of the dark age of Islamic civilisation. First our children need to learn and understand the modern world and excel at modern medicine. Filling their little heads with tall tales of some borrowed medieval ancestors won’t change a thing. We need to fund medical research locally and find our place in global medicine.