Abulcasis

ABULCASIS

METHODUS MEDENDI, 1541

AN ILLUSTRATED BOOK OF SURGERY

The surgical handbook of Abulcasis appeared in Basel in 1541. The title begins with the words: "Methodus Medendi certa, clara et brevis ...", i.e., "reliable, understandable and quick treatment method". It is proudly noted on the title page that the book contains nearly all of the instruments and illustrations necessary for nearly every disease. The publisher added additional medical writings to this work as well. The present copy is the third printed version.

The surgical writing is based on an extensive medical encyclopaedia entitled al-Tasrif (collection) which has thirty parts.  The thirtieth and final part of the book is particularly extensive. This is the surgical manual, which was printed separately.
In the first chapter, the book addresses the subject of cauterisation, including treatments with cautery irons. Another chapter is devoted to special surgeries such as stone operations, amputations, eye and ear surgery, obstetrics and dental surgery, wound care and cupping. A third part contains explanations on the healing of fractures and dislocations.

REQUIREMENTS FOR SURGEONS

With his work, Abulcasis wanted to improve the state of knowledge as well as the reputation of surgery. He writes: "I have described all the important operations in brief, and all necessary instruments, and I show them in drawn illustrations - thus I have done everything possible to shed light on the profession of the surgeon." He calls for every surgeon to familiarise himself with human anatomy and criticises Galen, who himself was content to focus on animal dissections. Only a surgeon who knows the cause and diagnosis of the suffering and has developed a therapeutic approach could perform procedures.

Although Abulcasis' teachings are firmly anchored in the ancient Doctrine of the Four Humours, the surgical explanations also contain new approaches. Particularly impressive are his illustrations, which appear not only in handwritten copies, but also in several subsequent surgical works. The Latin translation of al-Tasrif was printed for the first time in 1497 and in a second edition at Locatellus in Venice in 1500 , then in 1532 at Schott in Strassbourg. The present edition of 1541 was the first printed version illustrated with woodcuts.

PERSONAL PHYSICIAN TO THE WESTERN CALIPH

Abulcasis is wrongly referred to as Albucasis in this Latin translation of his manuscript. The name Abulcasis is the latinised form of Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi. The Spanish-Arab physician and surgeon was born around 936 in Andalusia and probably died shortly after 1009. Several decades before his birth, a second, Western Caliphate was established in Cordova – as opposed to the Eastern Arab Caliphate city of Baghdad.

There are not many sources at all that provide information on the life of Abulcasis. It is known that he was the personal physician of the young Western Caliph Hakam II, and that he moved with him into the new residence city al-Zahra outside of Cordova. The founding of this city is the reason for Abulcasis' surname, al-Zahrawi. Hakam II wanted to put an end to the enmity within the Arab world. He sent scholars and scouts to Baghdad to bring back copies of manuscripts to the western part of the kingdom. Abulcasis had access to his magnificent, extensive library. For twenty years, the Caliph reigned in the palace city. Then problems with the water supply forced the Court – Abulcasis as well – to return to Baghdad.

SURGERY AS AN ACADEMIC SPECIALITY

Arab medicine can be understood as an art and as a science. Long before there were universities in Europe, aspiring physicians in the Arab regions attended medical schools which included hospitals and libraries.

The search for ancient writings began in Europe in the High Middle Ages. There were only a few, often incomplete transcripts in the monasteries. In contrast, in the Eastern and Western Arab libraries, manuscripts were collected, copied and translated. Two waves of translation in particular brought Arab medicine and its unknown ancient writings to Europe. The first, which originated in the 11th century in the medical school of Salermo, Italy, and the second from Toledo, Spain in the 12th century. Both currents exerted great influence on Montpellier, where a medical college was created as a result. Unlike most medieval and early modern universities of Europe, surgery was not excluded as a non-academic craft in Montpellier and other Italian and Southern French medical schools.

In the 12th century, Abulcasis' manuscript was translated into Latin to be used as an academic textbook. For five centuries, Abulcasis had an impact on European surgery. The Papal physician, Guy de Chauliac, cited him around 200 times in his Chirurgie Magna, which was considered one of the most important medical compendia up into the 17th century.

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