Just as diseases have afflicted man in every age, so has the science of medicine always existed in one form or the other In ancient times, however, the science of medicine never reached the heights of progress that it did in the Islamic era and also latterly, in modern times.
It is believed that the beginning of the science of medicine — a beginning to be reckoned with — was made in ancient Greece. The two very great physicians who were born in ancient Greece were Hippocrates and Galen. Hippocrates lived in the fifth and fourth century BC. However, very little is known about his life. The historians of later times hae estimated that Hippocrates was probably born in 460 BC and died in 377 BC. Some historians, on the other hand, even have doubts about his being a historical figure. It has also been questioned whether the books on philosophy and medicine supposedly writter by someone else and later attributed to him.
Galen is considered the second most important philosopher and physicist of this period of antiquity. He was born probably in AD 129 and died in AD 199. Galen had to face stiff opposition in Rome, and most of his writings were destroyed. The remainder would also have been lost to posterity if the Arabs had not collected them in the ninth century and translated them into Arabic. These Arabic translations were later to reach Europe, in the eleventh century, where they were translated from Arabic into Latim.
The science of medicine came into being in ancient Greece about 200 years before the Christian era and flourished for another two centuries. In this way, the whole period extended over about four or five hundred years. This science did not see any subsequent advance in Greece itself. Although a European country, Greece did not contribute anything to the spread of its own medical science in Europe, or to modern medicine in the West. These facts are proof that the atmosphere in ancient Greece was not favourable to the progress of medicine.
The Greek medicine which was brought into being by certain individuals (effort was all at the individual level, as the community did not give it general recognition) remained hidden away in obscure books for about one thousand years after its birth. It was only when these books were translated into Arabic during the Abbasid period (750-1258), and edited by the Arabs with their own original additions, that it became possible for this science to find its way to Europe, thus paving the way for modern medical science.
As the Prophet (pbuh) said, “God has sent the remedy for every disease in the world except death.” This saying of the Prophet (pbuh) was the declaration of the leader of a revolution. No sooner did he announce to the world this truth about medicine than history began to be shaped by it in many practical ways.
Medicine was probably the first Greek science to attract the Arabs because of its obvious practical importance. Then they developed it to the extent of establishing medical colleges and hospitals, which did not exist in Greece. Not merely was it taught in the colleges of Iraq, but the teaching was accompanied by a flourishing medical service. The first hospital in Baghdad was founded about the year 800 on the initiative of the Caliph Harun al Rashid, and records have been preserved of the founding of four other hospitals there in the first quarter of the tenth century. A thirteenth century hospital in Cairo is said to have had accommodation for 8,000 persons. It had separate wards for male and female patients, as well as for different categories of ailment. The staff included physicians and surgeons, pharmacists, attendants of both sexes and administrative officers, and besides sotr-rooms and a chapel, there were facilities for lecturing and a library.
The Arabs thus made extraordinary advances in medicine through their research. The first important physician was Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (d. 923), known in Europe as Rhazes. He wrote voluminously on many scientific and philosophic subjects, and over fifty of his works are extant. His greatest work, Al-Havi, was translated into Latin as the Continens, (the comprehensive book). It was the first encyclopaedia of all medical science up to that time, and had to be completed by his disciples after his death. For each disease he gave the views of Greek, Syrian, Indian, Persian and Arabic authors, and then added notes on his clinical observations and expressed a final opinion.
The greatest writer on medicine was Ibn Sina or Avicenna. He was also one of the two greatest Arabic philosophers. His eminence in medicine was due to his ability to combine extensive theoretical knowledge and systamatic thought with acute clinical observation. His vast Canon of Medicine (Al-Qanun fi’t-Tib) was translated into Latin in the twelfth century and was used much more than the works of Galen and Hippocrates. It dominated the teaching of medicine in Europe until at least the end of the sixteenth century. There were sixteen printed editions of it in the fifteenth century, one being in Hebrew, twenty editions in the sixteenth century and several more in the seventeenth. Roughly contemporary with Ibn Sina was the chief Arabic writer on surgery and surgical instruments, Abul Qasim az-Zohrawi (d. after 1009), usually known in Latin as Abulcasis.
The gift of careful observation did not disappear and certain fourteenth century Arab doctors in Spain wrote knowledgeably, about the plague as they had experienced it in Granada and Almeria.