Avicenna’s Medical Thinking in Colonial Mexico

by Rolando Neri-Vela Published on: 27th August 2017

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New Spain was a viceroyalty of Spain between 1521 and 1821. In these three centuries, the practice and the teaching of medicine had a great influence from Arabian medicine, and in this way, the thinking of Avicenna and his followers...

Avicenna’s Medical Thinking in Colonial Mexico

A map of the countries under the supervision and appellate jurisdiction of the Viceroy of New Spain, at the Spanish imperial zenith in 1795 (Source)

New Spain was a viceroyalty and part of the great Spanish empire during three centuries, from 1521 to 1821.

After Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec kingdom, he began a new life studying medicine. This was because European medicine, at the time, was surrounded in superstition.The medical, surgical and pharmacological practices were subpar compared to the medicine of Northern Europe.[1]

Cortés scuttling his own fleet off the coast of Veracruz in order to eliminate the possibility of retreat (Source)

Surely all of the Spanish physicians who crossed the ocean, carried in their luggage the essential bibliographical material for their profession, all of them were faithful to the knowledge of Avicenna. Thanks to these books published by Mexican presses we can see which of Avicenna’s books were in circulation.

Francisco Bravo, who arrived in New Spain after he had studied in the Alcalá de Henares and Osuna universities, in Spain, wrote his first medical book, edited in America, named Opera medicinalia,[2] and cited Avicennas works as well as otherauthors like Galen, Avicenna, Rhazes, Hippocrates, Thucydides, Valles and Fracastoro. The works of Galen, Hippocrates and Avicenna were indispensable books for all medical doctors, and were edited many times.

We have a few examples regarding the works of Avicenna that came to New Spain. Avicenna was an author cited by all who wrote medical books in the Viceroyalty, and at the same time, it is rare that a book from the Renaissance period didn’t include Avicenna’s theories in its texts.

12th-century manuscript of ibn Sina’s Canon (Source)

Bravo didn’t say which of  Avicenna works he consulted, although he did point out treatises and chapters of the most well-known book from Avicenna, Canon. In the 16th century, this book was frequently used by Spanish medical doctors. It was also translated and used in medical schools along with the works of Galen and Hippocrates. There were many editions, of which twenty were in early print, including the classical translation from Gerard of Cremona, in the 12th century.

In the beginning of the 16th century, 1523, Praesens maximus codex est totius scientiae medicine principis Alboali Abinsene was published in Venice. This was a monumental typographical work, and the most commented upon edition from the Persian physician, in whose interpretation supervised the most noted Italian doctors of that times. It was an important book and arrived to almost all Spanish medical centers. A copy of this work was used in the ceremonies at Alcalá de Henares to establish the themes for the grade exam.

During the 16th century in Spain, the Epitome or Compendium of Avicenna was drafted by Miguel Capella, and the Prima primi canonis Avicena section, was written by Miguel Jerónimo de Ledesma, Valencian lecturer. His first book, a translation and commentary on one of Avicenna’s texts, was his most successful.  It is likely that these two works arrived to New Spain, for the purpose of teaching medicine at the Royal and Pontifical University, founded in 1553, and its Faculty of Medicine, that opened its doors in 1582.

During the middle of the 20th century, Dr. José Joaquín Izquierdo, a very distinguished Mexican physician, found in the National Library of Mexico, a copy of Liber canonis de medicines cordialibus et cantica, from Avicenna. The edition was edited by Joan Hervagios in 1556. The existence of this book in Mexico illustrates works from Avicenna were used in the 16th century by New Spain’s doctors. Another book from Avicenna, Disputatione medicae, printed by Pedro García Carrero at Alcalá de Henares by Juan Graciani’s press, in 1611, was founded by Izquierdo, too, in the same Library.

Juan de Cárdenas in his work Primera parte de los problemas y secretos maravillosos de las Indias[3] (1591) is sparing when naming his influences, but he does name Avicenna. Agustín Farfán wrote in 1592 Tractado Brebe de Medicina,[4] and in this work he quoted Galen, Hippocrates, Rhazes and Avicenna, in an abstract tone and without interest. Anatomy was studied using the works of Avicenna, complemented with the old authority of Galen and commented upon by Rhazes. The great philosopher and Muslim-Spanish scientist, Farfán said in his Tractado that the bones of the human body are 148, and the muscles 531. In addition, students should study, during the third year, the ninth book of Rhazes Almanzorem.

We have to remember that the medieval therapeutic methods were purges, cupping-glasses, draughts, plasters, cauterizations and various infusions. Then, in those times was used the called soliman water, to cauterize a sweet sublimate of mercury diluted in water, insipid and which first known prescription is founded in Summa perfectionis writed by Geber, Arabian alchemist whose work was known by Avicenna, and too, in New Spain.

Another common medicinal practice, that has its roots in Muslim science, was the use of the bezoar stone. Thought to be an effective antidote, this stone was used as an antidote to all poisons in New Spain. Enrico Martínez, astronomer, but no physician, wrote Repertorio de los tiempos, y historia natural desta Nueva España[5] in 1606, and in the fourth chapter he talks about the applicability of astrology, and in his book he mentions Avicenna and his Canon.

Bezoar stones on display in the German Pharmacy Museum in Heidelberg Castle (Source)

Verdadera medicina, cirugía y astrología, 1607 (Source)

Ships would arrive on American coasts full of books. Some works were forbidden by the Holy Inquisition, however some medical doctors managed to get their hands on some of them. In a list from 1576, Alonso Losa, a bookseller, received two copies of Exposición sobre las preparaciones de Mesue, published in 1569 by Antonio de Aguilera from Alcalá de Henares, in which the author explains the book of Juan Mesue, the Arabian physician whose works were used till the end of the 18th century. Mesue is named with profusion in Juan de Barrios’ book, Verdadera medicina, cirugía y astrología (6), published in 1607.

There is another incunabulum in the National Library of Mexico, that is a Latin translation of the works of Serapione, Liber serapionis agregatus in medicines simplicibus translaton Symonis Ianuensis interprete Abraan iudeo tortuosiensi de arabico in latinum inquit Serapion, published in 1473 at Parma by Antonio Zarotum.

In 1648 Juan de Correa, an anatomist of the Real y Pontificia Universidad de México wrote Tratado de la qualidad manifiesta, que el mercurio tiene…,[6] in which he wrote about life in the mines, and the poisoning caused by sulfur. The works of Avicenna and Geber allowed Juan de Correa to write his book.

During the 16th century, in New Spain, the texts for the Faculty of Medicine were various books from Hippocrates, Galen, Ali Abbas, Hunain Ibn Ishaq, Avicenna, Rhazes, Averroes and Mesue. In the third year of studies the students had to study the ninth book of Ad almanzorem, from Rhazes.

Later, when medievalism was substituted for modernism, in Spanish universities, they continued with lectures from Avicenna.[7]

Juan de los Barrios d/1569 (Source)

To summarize these notes, I will mention some ideas from the book Verdadera Medicina, Astrología y Cirugía,[8] from Juan de Barrios, published in Mexico in 1606. Juan de Barrios arrived in New Spain in 1590, after attending the universities of Alcalá, Salamanca and Valencia. His work is probably the most important monument of New Spanish medicine, written in dialogue form.

In chapter 17 of the third treatise of his book, de Barrios illustrates about the headache and hemicranias, saying that Avicenna thought that this disease was so terrible and ferocious that the joints of the head looked dilated, and it opened the head, and it was so tyrannical that sometimes it killed.[9]

When de Barrios talks about cataracts, in chapter 28, mentioning Avicenna, he says that to heal it [cataracts] the physician must use warm and dry air, the patient must not drink wine, only cinnamon or honey water, and they can eat hen, kid, and they must not drink milk nor eat fish.[10]

So, I have exposed briefly the influence and the utility of Arabian medicine and Avicenna’s thinking in American medicine, pointing out some of the authors that had more authority on physicians during the three centuries in Colonial Mexico.

Rolando Neri-Vela, MD, MSC
Naval School of Medicine,
Naval University, Mexican Navy


[1] Weckmann, Luis. La herencia medieval de México, II. El Colegio de México. México, 1984. Pp. 669-687.

[2] Bravo, Francisco. Opera medicinalia. Petrum Ocharte. Mexico, 1570.

[3] Cárdenas, Juan de. Primera parte de los problemas y secretos maravillosos de las Indias. Pedro Ocharte. México, 1591

[4] Farfán, Agustín. Tratado breve de anothomia y cirugía. Antonio Ricardo. México, 1579.

[5] Martínez, Enrico. Repertorio de los tiempos, y historia natural de la Nueva España. Enrico Martínez, 1606

[6] Correa, Juan de. Tratado de la qualidad manifiesta que el mercurio tiene. Hipólito de Ribera. México, 1648.

[7] Weckmann, op. cit,

Fernández del Castillo, Francisco. La Facultad de Medicina según el Archivo de la Real y Pontificia Universidad de México. Imprenta Universitaria. México, 1953

[8] Barrios, Juan de. Verdadera medicina, cirugía y astrología. Fernando Balli. México, 1607

[9] Flores, Francisco. Historia de la medicina en México desde la época de los indios hasta la presente, vol. 2. México. Oficina Tipográfica de la Secretaría de Fomento. 1886, p. 95

[10] Barrios, de. Op. cit.

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