Islamic medicine: Ibn Al-Nafis and the respiratory system

April 6, 2011 - 0:0

Ibn Al-Nafis (born 1213) goes down in the history of medicine as the first scholar to understand the respiratory and circulatory system, although his knowledge was incomplete. He understood that the heart was divided into two halves and stated that there were no pores connecting the two halves of the heart, as proposed by Galen.

Al-Nafis stated that the blood could only travel from one side of the heart to the other by passing through the lungs.
This was the first example of a scholar divining the nature of the pulmonary system. Although he was unsure of the mechanism, Al-Nafis correctly observed that the blood in the lungs mixed with air, although he also proposed that the blood was also infused with ‘spirit’ in the left cavity of the heart.
His other observation was that the heart was nourished by the web of capillaries surrounding it not, as proposed by Avicenna, the right ventricle of the heart.
He touched upon the subject of the role of capillaries in circulation, proposing that the pulmonary artery and vein were linked by microscopic pores; it would not be until four centuries later that this theory was rediscovered and the idea of capillaries was extended to the rest of the body.
The pulse was well known to Islamic medicine, and to the Egyptians before them, but Al-Nafis was the first to understand the mechanisms behind the pulse.
Galen proposed that the arteries pulsed naturally, and that the entire length of the artery contracted simultaneously, but Al- Nafis believed that the pulsation was caused by the action of the heart pushing blood around the body.
He correctly noted that the pulsation of the arteries lagged behind the action of the heart and that it did not occur simultaneously down the whole length.
However, Al Nafis believed that this motion of the blood was a means to disperse spirit, which would burn out the heart if it resided there for too long. He proposed that this spirit would become stagnant if left to rest in the arteries, and so the circulation was essential.
Whilst his theories of the heart and pulmonary circulation were reliant upon this invisible spirit, there is little doubt that his proposals were a major step towards understanding how the body works. Sadly, much of his knowledge did not pass into western history.
Some of his other observations were based upon his observations in dissection, of which he was a great proponent, and he corrected many misconceptions in physiology concerning the brain, gall bladder, bone structure and the nervous system.
Sadly, because very little of his work was translated into Latin, his work was woefully underutilized by western scientists and even the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci made incorrect observations based upon Galen and Avicenna, without realizing that Al-Nafis had already addressed many of these issues.
His other great contribution to Islamic medicine was his pharmacological works, which drew remedies from all across the world but also introduced mathematics and the idea of dosages to administration of treatments.
Other contributors to Islamic medicine
Serapion, a Syriac Christian, wrote a detailed treatise about pharmacology in the 9th Century, which describes several diseases and lists the known remedies for them.
Al Dinawari followed this with a book called ‘The Book of Plants,’ and this book, translated into Latin, influenced the western history of medicine.
There are many examples of medicines unknown to the Arabic regions passing into their medical books, and, in the 6th Century the Persian doctor, Burzoe, traveled to India and brought back many remedies, in addition to gathering information from the hired Indian physicians and healers working for the Caliphate.
Many Sanskrit works were translated into Arabic and Indian medicine certainly lay at the heart of Islamic medicine.
- Al Tabari (810 – 855):
He wrote a book known as ‘The Paradise of Wisdom,’ in 850, which was based largely upon the earlier works of Galen and Hippocrates, but it also included an appendix with translations from Indian sources.
Like many physicians of the time, his work involved providing better and more detailed encyclopedias, containing the medical knowledge available at that time. Sadly, it is believed that most of his works are lost and are only referred to as quoted in later texts.
Al Tabari’s work was made up of nine discourses, each divided into many chapters. These were:
I. General pathology, symptoms of internal disorders and general therapeutic principles II. Diseases and conditions affecting the head III. Diseases of the eyes, nose, face and mouth
IV. Nervous diseases V. Diseases of the chest and throat VI. Diseases of the stomach
VII. Diseases of the liver VIII. Diseases of the heart and lungs IX. Diseases of the intestines, urinary tract and genitals
- Al Hakm (Died 840):
He wrote the earliest known book in the medical sciences in the Islamic world and it drew heavily upon Greek sources, including information about physiology, surgery and general healthcare, amongst other sections.
- Yuhanna Ibn Masawyh (777 – 857):
He was regarded as amongst the great translators of work from Greek into Arabic, but he also acted as a physician to the Caliphs and served at a hospital.
He is believed to have written the works ‘Disorders of the Eye’ and ‘Knowledge of the Oculist Examinations’ as well as Kita al Mushajjar al-Kabir, a short work including descriptions, diagnosis, symptoms and treatments of diseases.
- Hunayan ibn Nishaq(808-873):
He was one of the titans of Islamic medicine, also Known as Johannitus in the West and was a prominent author of medical texts, covering a variety of disciplines.
As well as extensive translation work, he wrote a book called ‘The Book of Introduction to Medicine,’ which drew heavily upon Galen but also, included many unique and novel additions. His work was probably the first Islamic medical text translated into Latin.
- Islamic medicine and its place in the history of medicine
Whilst the Age of Islam was a time of intellectualism and scientific, social and philosophical advances, the greatest contribution to the world was Islamic medicine.
The Islamic scholars gathered vast amounts of information, from around the known world, adding their own observations and developing techniques and procedures that would form the basis of modern medicine.
In the history of medicine, Islamic medicine stands out as the period of greatest advance, certainly before the technology of the Twentieth Century.
(Source: Experiment-resources)