Prophylactic Medicine

by Mahmoud Misry Published on: 13th March 2020

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Arab physicians preferred the preservation of health to its restoration, arguing that to preserve something present is nobler than to seek something absent. A story reported in a thirteenth-century source illustrates that preserving health is at the heart of medicine...

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Most medical encyclopaedias and handbooks contain sections on the preservation of health. For instance, in his Paradise of Wisdom, Ibn Rabban al-Ṭabarī (fl. c. 850) talks about raising children, food and drink, tastes and smells, seasons, and other aspects of environmental medicine. He also touches on questions of psychological health. ʿAlī ibn ʿAbbās al-Majūsī (fl. c. 983), the author of a medical encyclopaedia entitled The Complete Book on the Medical Art (Kitāb Kāmil al-ṣināʿa al-ṭibbīya) also called The Royal Book (al-Kitāb al-Malakī) paid close attention to prophylactics, considering prevention to be better than cure. He devoted the first chapter of the second book to the topic of general health. The great Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, d. 1037) not only addressed this topic in his Canon of Medicine, but also penned a Poem on the Regimen of Health according to Seasons (Urjūza fī Tadbīr al-ṣiḥḥa fī l-fuṣūl)…

1001 Cures - Prophylactic Medicine

Figure 1. Ibn Jazla’s Almanac of Bodily Parts for the Treatment of People, written in Arabic and Karshūnī, meaning Arabic written in Syriac letters. In it, Ibn Jazlan often arranged the information in the form of diagrams.

Other authors also devoted specific treatises to the regimen of health. For instance, Ibn Buṭlān (d. 1066), author of the Almanac of Health (Kitāb Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa), arranged his treatise around the so-called six ‘non-naturals’, that is, factors contributing to health and illness that are not inside the human body; they are: ambient air; food and drink; sleeping and waking; exercise and rest; retention and evacuation (including bathing and sex); and mental states such as anger, sadness, love, joy, etc.). Another native of Baghdad, Ibn Jazla (d. 1100), wrote an Almanac of Bodily Parts for the Treatment of People (Taqwīm al-abdān fī tadbīr al-insān), in which the information is often arranged in form of diagrams…

1001 Cures - Prophylactic Medicine

Figure 2. Arab physicians divided medicine into two areas: ‘the preservation of health which aims to retain the state of a healthy individual and prevent him or her from becoming ill; and ‘the restoration of health which aims to return the sick person to his natural healthy state. This 13th-century manuscript image from al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt shows doctors visiting a patient.

To keep healthy requires several things. People should develop sound habits in terms of eating, drinking, exercise, sleep, posture, sexual intercourse, and bathing. Physicians must pay special attention to age and seasons, and modify the lifestyle accordingly. Certain parts of the body need special attention, such as eyes, ears, hands, feet and so on. One ought to be particularly careful in case of epidemic diseases and take appropriate protective measures. Then there is the environment, which should be as healthy as possible; here one has to pay particular attention to the ambient air, the water one drinks, and the location where one lives. Finally, there are many psychic factors that affect one’s health…

1001 Cures - Prophylactic Medicine

Figure 3. A physician with a patient about to vomit. Taken from a 13th-century copy of the Arabic version of Dioscorides’ On Medicinal Substances.

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