Avicenna, an under-appreciated genius

AvicennaI wrote on my previous page (PJ, 23/30 October 2010, p490) about Galen, one of the supporters of the SalvaDore’s arms.

Galen had much in common with his fellow supporter Avicenna, since both were physicians, philosophers and prolific writers. But Avicenna was also a poet, astronomer, geologist, palaeontologist, mathematician, physicist, chemist, Islamic theologian and much more besides.

The name Avicenna is a Latinised version of Ibn Sina, which itself is a sawn-off version of his full Islamic name. He was born in AD981 near Bukhara, which was then part of the Persian Empire but is now in Uzbekistan. At the time, Bukhara was the intellectual centre of the Islamic world, and during his education there Avicenna had access to its great libraries and met many of its renowned intellectuals.

Avicenna was a child prodigy. He began studying medicine when he was 16 and was a qualified physician by the age of 18. His subsequent life was spent mainly in medical practice.

Avicenna left a vast quantity of written works, of which 16 are medical treatises. Half of these are written in verse, including one on medical remedies. The eight prose works include a treatise on cardiac drugs.

But Avicenna’s largest, most famous and most important work is ‘Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb’ (‘The canon of medicine’), which contains about a million words and gives detailed descriptions of diseases and their treatment. In total, it considers some 760 drugs, with comments on their application and effectiveness.

The Qanun was the first book to deal with experimental medicine, evidence-based medicine and randomised controlled trials. The rules it lays out for testing new drugs are reflected in modern clinical pharmacology and clinical trials.

Among other things, the book recommends trying new drugs in animals first but then going on to conduct clinical trials because “testing a drug on a lion or a horse might not prove anything about its effect on man”.

Avicenna died in 1037 at the age of 57. Although he is considered a national icon in Iran, the western world has never given him the appreciation he deserves. So the Society’s founders did well to pick him as a supporter for the Society’s arms.

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