KeywordsConversion Disorder Vasovagal Syncope Treasure Trove Arabic Literature Severe Colic
Abu Ali Al-Hussein Ibn Abdullah Ibn Sina
Date, Country and City of Birth
980 AD in Kharmaithan near the city of Bukhara, Central Asia (Uzbekistan)
Date and City of Death
1037 AD at Hamadan (Iran)
History of Life
Ibn Sina’s life had all the elements of a best-selling novel: there was the political intrigue, imprisonment, military battles, harrowing escapes, and alleged poisoning. The details of his life are well known to us because Ibn Sina dictated to Juzjani his autobiography till the age of 23, and following that Juzjani documented the events of the life of his teacher and mentor until his death at the age of 57 (McGinnis 2010).
He was born in 980 AD in Kharmaithan (the Land of the Sun) near the city of Bukhara, capital of Transoxiana in Central Asia, in the present country of Uzbekistan. Bukhara was the capital of the Samani kingdom at that time. His father, Abdullah, was from the city of Balkh and worked as a local governor for a district near Bukhara. His mother was a Tadjik woman from the village of Afshana, named Sitara, a Persian name that means “star.” Abdullah realized that his son was a prodigy child and he invited the best tutors for his genius son. At the age of 10, he finished studying and memorizing the Quran, the holy book of Islam, by heart. He also studied the classics of Arabic literature and became proficient in Arabic language (Afnan 1958).
In the following 6 years, he devoted his time for studying Islamic law and jurisprudence, philosophy, logic, and natural sciences. At the age of 13, he started studying the medical sciences. By the age of 18, he was a well-established physician and his reputation became well known in his country and beyond. When the Sultan of Bukhara, Nuh Ibn Mansour of the Samanid dynasty, became seriously ill, Ibn Sina was summoned to treat him. After the recovery of the Sultan, Ibn Sina was rewarded and was given access to the royal library, a treasure trove for the young Ibn Sina (Goodman 2006).
After the Sultan’s death, and the defeat of the Samanid dynasty at the hands of the Turkish leader Mahmoud Ghaznawi, Ibn Sina moved to Jerjan near the Caspian Sea. He lectured there on astronomy and logic and wrote the first part of his book Al Qanun fi al Tibb, better known in the West as Canon, his most significant medical work. Later, he moved to Al-Rayy (near modern Tehran) and had a medical practice there. He authored about 30 books during his stay there. Later on, he moved to Hamadan. He cured its ruler Prince Shams al-Dawlah of the Buyid dynasty from a severe colic. He became the Prince’s private physician and confidant and was appointed as a Grand Viser (Prime Minister) (Smith 1980).
When Shams al-Dawlah died, Ibn Sina wrote to the ruler of Isfahan for a position at his court. When the Prince of Hamadan became aware of this, he imprisoned Ibn Sina. While in prison, he wrote several books. After his release, he went to Isfahan. He spent his final years serving its ruler Prince Ala al-Dawlah. He died of recurring severe colic in 1037 AD at the age of 57. He was buried in the city of Hamadan in Iran (Goodman 2006).
Main Achievements to Medicine/Pathology
Avicenna described many diseases and pathological conditions in his medical encyclopedic book, the Canon, particularly in part 2 of the first book, which was related to causes and symptoms of diseases. In his third book of the Canon, he described various diseases and made several observations in other chapters of his book:
The nervous system and its diseases: The chapter begins by explaining the structure and function of the nervous system, including parts of the brain, the spinal cord, ventricles, meninges, nerves, and roots, followed by a description of neurological and neuropsychological disorders, including signs and symptoms and treatment strategies. Among the specific conditions in the field of neurology and neuropsychiatry, he mentioned epilepsy in children and adults, apoplexy and stroke, paralysis, vertigo, spasm, wry mouth, tremor, meningitis, amnesia and dementia, head injuries and traumas, hysteria and conversion disorder, fainting and stupor, love sickness, delusion and hallucination, mania and psychosis, melancholia, paranoia, hydrocephalus, and sciatica.
He described several psychiatric disorders including the so-called disorder of love. Avicenna considered it as an obsessive disorder resembling severe depression. He described the case of a debilitated young man with fever. By checking his pulse rate after naming various quarters of Baghdad, he was able to recognize the street where the patient’s loved one was residing. After convincing the family, the young man married the girl he was in love with, and he quickly regained his health (Shoja and Tubbs 2007).
He stated that tuberculosis (phthisis) was contagious. He described the symptoms of diabetes and commented that diabetes was frequently associated with phthisis as a complication.
He dedicated sections of his book on the importance of checking the pulse of the patients (pulsology). He was the first to note the carotid artery hypersensitivity resulting in vasovagal syncope (Shoja et al. 2009).
Avicenna believed that cancer was due to excessive black bile, and that it sent crablike tracks, and affected mostly hollow organs. He stated that cancer could involve lymph glands, tendons, and muscles. Avicenna emphasized preoperative differentiation of benign and malignant tumors. He treated benign tumors either by ligation or by excision in one step. For cancers, he introduced surgical removal in gradual steps. His technique was remembered centuries later as the first example of a multistage operation (Hajdu and Darvishian 2010). In advanced stages, he advised against excision stating that the tumor shall recur.
Books and Publications of Avicenna
Ibn Sina was a prolific writer. It is claimed that he wrote about 450 works, of which 240 had survived. Anawati listed 276 works in his book on the bibliography of Ibn Sina (Anawati 1950). Some bibliographers list only 21 major and 24 minor works dealing with philosophy, medicine, astronomy, geometry, theology, philology, and art.
He wrote several books on philosophy, the most significant was Kitab al Shifa (The Book of Healing). The title can be misleading because the book did not deal with medical healing or cures. It was a philosophical encyclopedia that brought Aristotelian and Platonian philosophical traditions together with Islamic theology in dividing the field of knowledge into theoretical knowledge (physics, metaphysics, and mathematics) and practical knowledge (ethics, economics, and politics). Western theologians and philosophers were deeply influenced by Kitab al Shifa which was translated to Latin as Sufficientia (Sarton 1955).
Other books on philosophy were Kitab al-Isharat wa al Tanbihat (Book of Signs and Admonitions), Kitab Al Hidayah (The Book of Guidance), Risalat Haiy ibn Yaqzan (The Treatise of Living, the Son of the Vigilant), Kitab Al Najat (Book of Salvation) and Kitab Al Insaf (Book of Impartial Judgment), and finally al-Hikmah al-Mashriqiyyah (The Oriental Philosophy), which he left unfinished (Sarton 1955).
This book was translated to Latin in the twelfth century by Gerard of Cremona. It became the textbook for medical education in Europe from the twelfth to the seventeenth century. It is stated that in the last 30 years of the fifteenth century, the Canon passed through 15 Latin editions in Padua, Milano, Strasbourg, Bologna, Pavia, Venice (five different presses), and Lyon. There was one Hebrew edition in Naples in 1491 (Sarton 1955).
The Canon is divided into five books, including medical therapeutics, with 760 drugs listed (Amr and Tbakhi 2007). The books are:
Part 1: The institutes of medicine (definition of medicine, its task, its relation to philosophy; the elements, juices, and temperaments; the organs and their functions)
Part 2: Causes and symptoms of diseases
Part 3: General dietetics and prophylaxis
Part 4: General therapeutics
Book II: On the simple medications and their actions
Book III: The diseases of the brain, the eye, the ear, the throat and oral cavity, the respiratory organs, the heart, the breast, the stomach, the liver, the spleen, the intestine, the kidneys, and the genital organs
Part 1: On fevers
Part 2: Symptoms and prognosis
Part 3: On sediments
Part 4: On wounds
Part 5: On dislocations
Part 6: On poisons and cosmetics
Book V: On compounding of medications
Other books or treatises on medicine include Kitab Al Qulanj, a treatise on colic; Al-Adwiyat Al-Qalbiyyah (The Cardiac Remedies); and Urjuza fi ‘l-Tibb (A Poem in Medicine).
Ibn Sina legacy survived a whole millennium. His legendary contributions are remembered in our modern times. There are colleges and medical schools in Tajikistan, Pakistan Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Holland, and Hungary named after him. In addition, there are six medical journals that carry his name. WHO established, in collaboration with University of Copenhagen, a public database of worldwide medical schools in 2008 and named it Avicenna Directory for Medicine, in recognition of his historical legacy.
References and Further Reading
- Afnan, S. M. (1958). Chapter 2. Life and works of Avicenna. In Avicenna. His life (980–1037) and work (pp. 30–45). London: Allen and Unwin Ltd., Publishers.Google Scholar
- Anawati, G. C. (1950). Essai de bibliographie avicenniene (Muallafat Ibn Sina). Cairo: Dar al-Ma’arif.Google Scholar
- Goodman, L. E. (2006). Chapter 1. Life, time, writing: 2. Ibn Sina’s youth and education. In Avicenna (pp. 11–19). Updated Edition. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
- McGinnis, J. (2010). Chapter 1. Avicenna’s intellectual and historical milieu. Avicenna’s life and work. In Great medieval thinkers: Avicenna (pp. 16–17). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar