Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi

Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī (Zakariā-ye Rāzi: Persian: زكريای رازی), known as Rhazes or Rasis after medieval Latinists, (August 26 865, Rayy— 925, Rayy) was a Persian alchemist, chemist, physician, philosopher and scholar. He is recognised as a polymath and often referred as "probably the greatest and most original of all the Muslim physicians, and one of the most prolific as an author".
He made fundamental and enduring contributions to the fields of medicine, alchemy, music, and philosophy, recorded in over 184 books and articles in various fields of science. He was well-versed in Persian, Greek and Indian medical knowledge and made numerous advances in medicine through own observations and discoveries.

Well educated in music, mathematics, philosophy, and metaphysics, he finally chose medicine as his professional field. As a physician, he was an early proponent of experimental medicine and is considered the father of pediatrics. He was also a pioneer of neurosurgery and ophthalmology. He was among the first to use Humoralism to distinguish one contagious disease from another. In particular, Razi was the first physician to distinguish smallpox and measles through his clinical characterization of the two diseases. And as an alchemist, Rhazes is known for his study of sulfuric acid and for his discovery of ethanol and its refinement to use in medicine. He became chief physician of Rayy and Baghdad hospitals.

Rhazes was a rationalist and very confident in the power of ratiocination; he was widely regarded by his contemporaries and biographers as liberal and free from any kind of prejudice and very bold and daring in expressing his ideas without a qualm.
He traveled extensively but mostly in Persia. As a teacher in medicine, he attracted students of all disciplines and was said to be compassionate and devoted to the service of his patients, whether rich or poor.

European depiction of the Persian doctor Al-Razi, in Gerard of Cremona "Receuil des traites de medecine" 1250-1260


Rhazes was born on 28 August 865 AH and died on 6 October 925AH. His name Razi in Persian means from the city of Rayy, an ancient town called Ragha in old Persian and Ragâ in Avestan. It is located on the southern slopes of the Elburz Range situated near Tehran, Iran. In this city (like Ibn Sina) he accomplished most of his work.

In his early life he could have been a musician or singer (see Ibn abi Usaibi'ah) but more likely a lute-player who shifted his interest from music to alchemy (cf. ibn Juljul, Sa'id, ibn Khallikan, Usaibi'ah, al-Safadi). At the age of 30 (Safadi says after 40) he stopped his study of alchemy because his experimentation had caused an eye-disease (Cf. al-Biruni), obliging him to search for physicians and medicine to cure it. al-Biruni, Beyhaqi and others, say this was the reason why he began his medical studies.

Contributions to medicine

Smallpox vs. measles

As chief physician of the Baghdad hospital, Razi formulated the first known description of smallpox:
"Smallpox appears when blood 'boils' and is infected, resulting in vapours being expelled. Thus juvenile blood (which looks like wet extracts appearing on the skin) is being transformed into richer blood, having the color of mature wine. At this stage, smallpox shows up essentially as 'bubbles found in wine' - (as blisters) - ... this disease can also occur at other times - (meaning: not only during childhood) -. The best thing to do during this first stage is to keep away from it, otherwise this disease might turn into an epidemic."
This diagnosis is acknowledged by the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911), which states: "The most trustworthy statements as to the early existence of the disease are found in an account by the 9th-century Persian physician Rhazes, by whom its symptoms were clearly described, its pathology explained by a humoral or fermentation theory, and directions given for its treatment."

Razi, treating a patient

Razi's book: al-Judari wa al-Hasbah (On Smallpox and Measles) was the first book describing smallpox and measles as distinct diseases. It was translated more than a dozen times into Latin and other European languages. Its lack of dogmatism and its Hippocratic reliance on clinical observation show Razi's medical methods.

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