Avicenna - The Canon of Medicine

Avicenna, the medieval Latin name for Ibn Sina, was regarded as one of the greatest scientific minds since Aristotle. This article looks at 15th century edition of his Canon of Medicine held in the IET Archives. 

A Presidential Curiosity

In medieval times the Arab-Islamic world developed a medical tradition that was one of the most advanced of the pre-modern world. Founded on Graeco-Roman medicine it saved many classical texts which might otherwise have been lost through their translations and reintroduction to Europe.

Avicenna, the medieval Latin name for Ibn Sina (c980-1037), was generally regarded as one of the greatest minds since Aristotle and was greatly influenced by his writings. Ibn Sina professes to have been practising medicine from the age of sixteen and his multi-faceted talents are evident in his literary works- over 250 titles. He served as a jurist and held several government positions in Persia but his primary interests were philosophy and medicine.

Ibn Sina’s great medical treatise is his Al-Qanun ti l-tibb also known as the “Canon of Medicine” from its Latin translation. For Ibn Sina medicine fell within the realm of Aristotelian natural sciences. In his Qanun he organised Galen’s medical writings into a system governed by Aristotelian philosophy, most notable being the fusion of Galen's humoral system with Aristotle’s doctrine of three life sources. The Qanun was so well received by physicians that Ibn Sina and others were honoured in their time with the title Jalnus al- Islam or ‘Galen of Islam’.

The beautifully presented Qanun is divided into five books:

Opening page from the Avicenna's 1486 Canon of Medicine

Book I – al Kulliyyat (“Generalities” or “Universals”) is the most complicated. It is the study of the four elements, four humors, forces, etiology, symptoms, hygiene, causes of sickness and inevitability of death, modes of therapy, treatment by regimes and general surgical treatments. In essence a systematic framework for medical practice.

Book II- physical properties of drugs, their qualities and virtues.

Book III- diseases from head to toe beginning with the brain, nerves, eye, ear and ending with pains in joints.

Book IV- general pathology such as fevers, wounds, poisons, fractures.

Book V- compound drugs and their applications.

In addition to the Qanun, Ibn Sina wrote about 40 other medical works mostly preserved in manuscript. However, the Qanun’s importance lies in its systemisation of medicine and its attention to detail that gave the work authority over the discipline for hundreds of years. Critics of the text suggested it was complete and this attitude toward the authority of the books and their authors kept Arab-Islamic medicine, until its decline, and to a certain degree, early medieval medicine in Europe, in a static condition.

About 100 years after Ibn Sina’s death Gerard of Cremona in Toledo translated the Qanun into Latin as the Canon of Medicine. This was later reworked and improved by Andrea Alpago (d. 1520), a physician and scholar. The improved version was published in Venice in 1527 and reprinted more than 30 times in the 15th and 16th centuries. 

There are more than 50 complete or partial copies of the Qanun, and manuscripts of the many later commentaries on it are even more numerous.It has been observed that probably no other medical work ever written has been so much studied.

Detail of the border illumination from the 1486 edition of Avicenna's Canon of Medicine

The edition pictured above is held in the rare book collection in the IET Archives and was printed in Venice in 1486, in half-Gothic type with hand-painted initial capitals in red and blue throughout the text. The first page is elaborately illuminated in gold, silver, and several colours, and the first page of each of the constituent books of the Canon has an elaborately decorated initial capital in red, purple, and blue.  

Additionally, an early owner has scribbled notes in Latin in the margins throughout the book.  Books of this period, the cradle period of printing, were designed to resemble as closely as possible the manuscripts which they supplanted. This copy was rebound in 1832, while in the possession of the Lee family of Hartwell House near Aylesbury, Bucks. Their bookplates are still present on the inside front cover.

But why is this 15th-century edition of an Arabic medieval text in the IET Archives? It was acquired in 1917 as part of the library of Silvanus Phillips Thompson (1850-1916), Principle of Finsbury Technical College and President of the Institution in 1899. Thompson was interested in the history of electricity and magnetism and in his collection he aimed to trace his subject back to its earliest roots. 

He recognised that magnetism and the phenomena associated with amber are the prehistory of electricity, so he tried to collect every possible early reference, and there are several in his work. For instance, Ibn Sina notes that the Arab word for amber, kahrubá, is of Persian origin and signifies "the power of attracting straws" while the magnet is called ahang-rubá, or "attractor of iron".  

In Book II, the Materia Medica section of the Qanun, Ibn Sina refers to cures by the magnet, iron, and amber. For example the magnet was effective against diseases of the spleen, dropsy, and hair-loss, while amber was a remedy for diseases of the chest and lungs.