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Arabian Christian Physicians

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

tian 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, he

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 from the Greek into Arabic. Another distinguished Arabian

Christian physician was Serapion the elder. He 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 Ischak, 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 his 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

Motadhid. 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 Serapion

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


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 cannot but be admired. There is absolutely no trace of

anything like opposition to the development of medical science 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 succeeding 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.