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Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi (Rhazes) (c. 865-925)

Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi, known in the West as Rhazes, was the leading scholar of the early Islamic world. His stature is comparable only to that of Ibn Sina a century later. Influenced by Hippocrates and classical Greek medicine, Al Razi wrote numerous books on a range of medical and scientific subjects. The Al-Mansuri and Al-Hawi, his encyclopedic reviews of medicine, were translated into several languages and became a standard text for Islamic and European medical students for centuries.

He was a keen experimenter and observer. As director of a large hospital in Baghdad and physician to the royal court, he engaged in medicine on a practical level and these experiences permeate his writings. He saw the importance of recording a patient’s case history and made clinical notes about the progress and symptoms of different illnesses, including his own.

One of his most innovative assertions related to measles and smallpox. Previously they were lumped together simply as a disease that caused rashes, but through careful observation al-Razi recorded the differences in appearance of the skin inflammations as well as the accompanying physical symptoms, and proposed correctly that they were indeed two distinct diseases.

Bibliography

Rhazes, The Spiritual Physick of Rhazes, translated by A J Arberry in the Wisdom of the East Series (London: John Murray, 1950)

Rhazes (al-Razi). A Treatise on the Smallpox and Measles, translated by W A Greenhill. (London: Sydenham Society,1848; rpt. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1939)

E Savage-Smith, ‘Medicine’, in R Rashed (ed.), Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, 3 (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), pp 903-962

O Timkin, 'A medieval translation of Rhazes' clinical observations', Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 12 (1942), pp 102-117

Glossary:

Measles

Disease caused by a virus most commonly found in children. Measles is spread through airborne fluids. In roughly the last 150 years, measles has been estimated to have killed 200 million people worldwide.

Smallpox

Smallpox is an infectious virus unique to humans. It results in a characteristic skin rash and fluid-filled blisters. After successful vaccination campaigns throughout the 1800s and 1900s, the World Health Organisation certified the eradication of smallpox in 1979. Smallpox is the only human infectious disease to have been completely wiped out.