Arabian Christian Physicians
( Originally Published 1911 )
That this is not a partial view suggested by the desire to make out a better case for Christianity in its relation to science will be very well understood, besides, from the fact that a number of the original physicians of Arab stock who attracted attention during the first period of Arabian medicine, that is, during the eighth and ninth centuries, were Christians. There are a series of physicians belonging to the Christian family Bachtischua, a name which is derived from Bocht Jesu, that is, servant of Jesus, who, from the middle of the eighth to the middle of the eleventh century, acquired great fame. The first. of them, George (Dschordschis), after acquiring fame elsewhere, was called to Bagdad by the Caliph El-Mansur, where, because of his medical skill, lie reached the highest honors. His son became the body-physician of Harun al-Raschid.
In the third generation Gabriel (Dschibril) acquired fame and did much, as had his father and grandfather, for the medicine of the time, by translations of the Greek physicians into Arabian.
These men may well be said to have introduced Greek medicine to the Mohammedans. it was their teaching that aroused Moslem scholars from the apathy that had characterized the attitude of the Arabian people toward science at the beginning of Mohammedanism. As time went on, other great Christian medical teachers distinguished themselves among the Arabs. Of these the most prominent was Messui the elder, who is also known as Janus Damascenus. Both he and his father practised medicine with great success in Bagdad, and his son became the body-physician to Harun al-Raschid either after or in conjunction with Gabriel Bachtischua. Like his colleague or predecessor in official position, he, too, made translations front the Greek into Arabic. Another distinguished Arabian Christian physician was Serapion the elder. lie was born in Damascus, and flourished about the middle of the ninth century. He wrote a book on medicine called the " Aggregator," or " Breviarium," or " Practica Medicinae," which appeared in many printed editions within the century after the invention of printing. During the ninth century, also, we have an account of Honein Ben lschak, who is known in the West as Johannitius. After travelling much, especially in Greece and Persia, he settled in Bagdad, and, under the patronage of the Caliph Mamum, made many translations. He translated most of the old Greek medical writers, and also certain of the Greek philosophic and mathematical works. The accuracy of his translations became a proverb. His compendium of Galen was the text-book of medicine in the West for many centuries. It was known as the " Isagoge in Artem Parvam Galeni." His son, Ishac Ben Honein, and Lis nephew, Hobeisch, were also famous as medical practitioners and translators.
Still another of these Arabian Christians, who acquired a reputation as writers in medicine, was Alkindus. He wrote with regard to nearly everything, however, and so came to be called the philosopher. He is said altogether to have written and translated about two hundred works, of which twenty-two treat of medicine. He was a contemporary of Honein Ben Ischak in the ninth century. Another of the great ninth-century Christian physicians and translators from the Greek was Kostaben Luka. He was of Greek origin, but lived in Armenia and made translations from Greek into Arabic. Nearly all of these men took not alone medical science, but the whole round of physical science, for their special subject. A typical example in the ninth century was Abuhassan Ben Korra, many of whose family during succeeding generations attracted attention as scholars. He became the astronomer and physician of the Caliph Motadhicd. His translations in medical literature were mainly excerpts from Hippocrates and Galen meant for popular use. These Christian translators, thoroughly scientific as far as their times permitted them to be, were wonderfully industrious in their work as translators, great teachers in every sense of the word, and they are the men who formed the traditions on which the greater Arabian physicians from Rhazes onward were educated.
It would be easy to think that these men, occupied so much with translations, and intent on the re-introduction of Greek medicine, might have depended very little on their own observations, and been very impractical. All that is needed to counteract any such false impression, however, is to know something definite about their books. Gurlt, in his " History of Surgery," has some quotations from Serapion the elder, who is often quoted by Rhazes. In the treatment of hemorrhoids Sera-pion advises ligature and insists that they must be tied with a silk thread or with some other strong thread, and then relief will come. He says some people burn them medicinis acutis (touching with acids, as some do even yet), and some incise them with a knife. He prefers the ligature, however. He calmly discusses the removal of stones from the kidney by incision of the pelvis of the kidney through an opening in the loin. He considers the operation very dangerous, however, but seems to think the removal of a stone from the bladder a rather simple procedure. His description of the technique of the use of a catheter and of a stylet with it, and apparently also of a guide for it in difficult cases, is extremely interesting. He suggests the opening of the bladder in the median line, midway between the scrotum and the anus, and the placing of a canula therein, so as to permit drainage until healing occurs.
Even this brief review of the careers and the writings of the physicians of early Christian times shows how well the tradition of old Greek medicine was being carried on. There was much to hamper the cultivation of science in the disturbances of the time, the gradual breaking up of the Roman Empire, and the replacement of the peoples of southern Europe by the northern nations, who had come in, yet in spite of all this, medical tradition was well preserved. The most prominent of the conservators were themselves men whose opinions on problems of practical medicine were often of value, and whose powers of observation frequently eannot but be admired. There is absolutely no trace of anything like opposition to the development of medical scienee or medical practice, but, on the contrary, everywhere among political and ecclesiastical authorities, we find encouragement. and patronage. The very fact that, in the storm and stress of the sueceeding centuries, manuscript copies of the writings of the physicians of this time were preserved for us in spite of the many vicissitudes to which they were subjected from fire, and war, and accidents of various kinds for hundreds of years, until the coming of printing, shows in what. estimation they were held. During this time they owed their preservation to churchmen, for the libraries and the copying-rooms were all under ecclesiastical control.