Pharmacology in the Making

Advances in Muslim chemistry led to the development of Muslim pharmacology. Al-Zahrawi made pioneering developments in the preparation of medicines by using sublimation and distillation. Others excelled in chemical technology.

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Advances in Muslim chemistry led to the development of Muslim pharmacology, Al-Razi, for instance, acting to promote the medical uses of chemical compounds.  Sabur Ibn Sahl (d 869), it was, however, who was the first physician to initiate pharmacopoeia, describing a large variety of drugs and remedies for ailments.

Al-Biruni (d 1051) wrote one of the most valuable Islamic works on pharmacology entitled Kitab al-Saydalah (The Book of Drugs), where he gave detailed knowledge of the properties of drugs and outlined the role of pharmacy and the functions and duties of the pharmacist.

Ibn Sina, too, described no less than 700 preparations, their properties, mode of action and their indications. He devoted in fact a whole volume to simple drugs in his Canon.

Of great impact were also the works by Massawayh al-Maridini of Baghdad and Cairo, and Ibn al-Wafid of Spain, both of which were printed in Latin more than fifty times, appearing as De Medicinis universalibus et particularibus by `Mesue' the younger, and the Medicamentis simplicibus by `Abenguefit'. Peter of Abano (1250-1316) translated and added a supplement to the work of al-Maridini under the title De Veneris.

Fig 2.Series of woodcuts of chemical and distilling apparatus from The works of Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber in Latin), the most famous Arabian prince and philosopher, faithfully Englished by Richard Russel (London, 1678).  (e) Calcination, (f) Water bath, (g) Vessels, (h) Fixation and Sublimation

In this area, however, it was Al-Zahrawi (of Spain) who played a determining role, pioneering in the preparation of medicines by sublimation and distillation. His Liber servitoris is of particular interest, Sherwood Taylor explains, because its purpose is to tell the reader how to prepare the `simples' from which were compounded the complex drugs then generally used. Al-Zahrawi also gives methods of preparing litharge, white lead, lead sulphide (burnt lead), burnt copper, cadmia, marcaside, yellow arsenic and lime, the various vitriols, salts, natron etc. He also gives a considerable number of recipes for distilled products, though not alcoholic ones, the beginning of distillation as a means of preparing drugs, perhaps the most significant feature of all according to Sherwood Taylor.

Abu al-Mansur al-Muwaffaq's contributions in the field are also pioneering. Living in the tenth century, he wrote The foundations of the true properties of Remedies, amongst others describing arsenious oxide, and being acquainted with silicic acid. He made clear distinction between sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate, and drew attention to the poisonous nature of copper compounds, especially copper vitriol, and also lead compounds. For the story, he also mentions the distillation of sea-water for drinking.

It is to Levey that credit goes for reviving this (medical) aspect of Islamic chemistry in his comprehensive Early Arabic Pharmacology.According to Levey, the Muslims were expert organisers of knowledge; their pharmacological texts directed carefully along lines that were useful to the apothecary and medical practicioner. These treatises as a result generally are more or less within well delineated groups. Some of the major types of Muslim pharmacological he list go as follows:

  • Medical formularies which include many kinds of compound drugs, pills, pastilles, powders, syrups, oils, lotions, toothpastes...
  • Books on poisons.
  • Synonymatic: treatises, in which are found lists of simples usually in alphabetical order to help the reader to identify the drug in other languages.
  • Tabular, synoptic texts, whereby long texts are turned into tabular work for quick usage, and abstracts made of some treatises for the same purpose.
  • Lists of materia medica which include therapeutic considerations and opinions of various writers on the subject, preparations of the drugs and descriptions..
  • Substitute drugs in case one drug for whatever reason was not available, a substitute was provided.
  • Works on medical specialities available either as separate treatises or as sections of large encyclopaedias of medicine.

Fig 3. Arabic manuscript held in the British Library showing the distillation process in a treatise of chemistry. © The British Library, London.

Chemical Technology

Levey's contribution was also instructive in other branches of Muslim chemistry. A good series of articles of his, unfortunately not gathered in a sort of varorium, can be found scattered in various medical journals. But the best revue to acquaint us with Levey's work is Chymia, edited by H.M. Leicester. In Volume 7 (1961) of this review, Levey deals with inks, glues, and erasure fluids, making a preliminary survey of Islamic chemical technology (pp 57-72). Levey brings to knowledge the pioneering works of the Tunisian scientist Ibn Badis (1007-1061), who in his Umdat al-Kuttab (Staff of the Scribes) in twelve chapters, writes amongst others on: the excellence of the pen, the preparation of types of inks, the preparation of colored inks, the coloring of dyes and mixtures, secret writing, the making of paper, and so on...a remarkable list indeed.

In the same issue Levey also looks at the development of the Islamic atomic theory (pp.40-56). In volume eight, he considers Al-Kindi's views of Aqrabadhins (pharmacists) (pp 11-20), whilst in volume nine, he considers the crucial matters of chemical technology and commercial law in Early Islam (pp 19-25). In the latter, Levey looks at the office of the Muhtassib (censor of customs), where the practice of the law comes into contact with the commercial chemical applications; the muhtassib enforcing what was legally right, and preventing what was illegal; and checking weights and measures, inspecting apothecaries, demanding the purity in the manufacture of goods, preventing the use of inferior dyes, and so on. Finally, in volume 11 of the same revue (pp 37-44), Levey looks at the chemical formulary of a scientist not considered in this paper, but so deserving it: al-Samarquandi.

Fig 4. Pharmacist preparing drugs. From a MS of the Arabic translation of Dioscorides' Materia Medica. (Source).

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