(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: The most original thinker and the keenest clinical observer of all the medieval Muslim physicians, al-Razi produced the first clinical account of smallpox and measles, a twenty-four-volume compendium of medical knowledge, and set new standards for medical ethics, the clinical observation of disease, and the testing of medical treatment.

Early Life

There is little authentic information about the life of al-Razi. He was born around 864 in Rayy, a few miles from modern Tehran, administered a hospital in that town as well as in Baghdad, and died in his hometown about 925. In his youth, music was his chief interest; he played the lute and studied voice. Upon reaching adulthood he rejected this pursuit, however, asserting that music produced by grown men lacked charm. He then turned to the study of philosophy, a lifelong interest, and developed decidedly egalitarian views, a keen interest in ethics, and a profoundly questioning stance toward received dogmas, both religious and scientific. In his thirties he began to pursue medical studies and a career as a physician.

His interest in medicine reportedly arose after a visit to a sick home in Baghdad, where he was so moved by the suffering of the sick and maimed patients that he determined to devote the rest of his life to alleviating human misery through the practice of medicine. Exactly where he acquired his medical training is unknown, although it was most likely in Baghdad, where he lived from 902 to 907. At that time the city was the leading center of learning in the Middle East and contained fully equipped hospitals, well-stocked libraries, and a sound tradition of research. Successive ʿAbassid caliphs, from al-Mansur (754-775) and Hārūn al-Rashīd (786-809) to al-Mamun (813-833), had generously endowed institutes for the study of ancient Greek arts and sciences as well as those of Persia and India. Some scholars suggest that al-Razi, who spent most of his life in Iran, probably studied medicine at the University of Jondisabur, a Sassanid-founded institution, which remained a major medical center in the medieval Muslim East.

Life’s Work

Al-Razi, an outstanding clinician and a brilliant diagnostician and medical practitioner, was probably the most learned and original of all the medieval Muslim physicians. His scientific and philosophical writings total some 113 major and twenty-eight minor works, of which twelve discuss alchemy. While chief physician and master teacher of the hospital in Rayy, he produced the ten-volume encyclopedia Kitab al-tibb al-Mansuri (c. 915), named for his patron Mansur ibn Ishaq al-Samani of Sijistan; a Latin translation, Liber Almansoris, was first published in Milan in the 1580’s. Al-Razi was invariably described as a generous and gracious man with a large head, full beard, and imposing presence. His lectures, which attracted full-capacity crowds of students, were organized so that his senior students handled all questions they could answer, deferring to him only those issues beyond their knowledge.

Early in his career he earned a reputation as an effective and compassionate healer, which resulted in his appointment in 918 by the ʿAbbasid caliph al-Muqtadir as physician in chief of the great hospital at Baghdad. In choosing a new site for this main hospital, al-Razi is said to have had pieces of meat hung in different quarters of Baghdad, finally selecting the spot where the meat was slowest to decompose, which he deemed the area with the healthiest air. As a result of his compassion for the sick and his contributions to medical ethics, al-Razi is justifiably compared to Hippocrates. In his Baghdad hospital he provided patients with music, storytelling, recitations of the Koran, and separate convalescent quarters. He not only treated poor patients free of charge but also supported them with his own funds during their convalescence at home. He emphasized a holistic approach to treating illness—that the mind as well as the body must be treated—but above all insisted that the art of healing must rest on a scientific basis. In his treatise on medical ethics, Upon the Circumstances Which Turn the Head of Most Men from the Reputable Physician (c. 919), al-Razi warns physicians that laymen think doctors know all and can diagnose a problem with a simple examination. He laments that frustrated patients turn to quacks who may alleviate some symptoms but not effect a cure. Al-Razi advises reputable physicians not to despair or promise cures but to use their critical judgment, apply tested treatments to appropriate cases, and be thoroughly familiar with the available medical literature.

Al-Razi, like Hippocrates, based his diagnoses on observation of the course of a disease. In administering treatments, he paid serious attention to dietetics and hygienic measures in conjunction with the use of closely monitored drug therapy. His fine powers of observation and detailed clinical descriptions are evident in his best-known monograph, al-Judari w-alhasbah (c. 922; A Treatise on the Smallpox and Measles,...

(The entire section is 2104 words.)