Rym Aoudia introduces us to one of the first and finest surgeons the world has ever known
Around 940 AD, during the Andalusian Umayyad reign, one of the greatest pioneers of surgery was born – Abul Qasim Khalaf Ibn Al Abbas Al-Zahrawi. European sources referred to Al-Zahrawi as Alzahawi, Ezzahrawi, Zahravius, Aicaravi, Alsahrawi, and even Abulcases, Bulcasis, and Bulcasim, which are derived from his first name.
Little is known about the early life of Al-Zahrawi, probably because his native city El-Zahra was destroyed before his death, in 1011. Nevertheless, he is widely accredited for his role in the field of medicine.
The first known biography of Al-Zahrawi was written approximately 60 years after his death by Andalusian scholar Abu Muhammad Ibn Hazm (993-1064), in his book “Jadhwat Al-Muqtabis.” Translated as “On Andalusian Servants,” it mentions Al-Zahrawi as the most prominent physician and surgeon during Umayyad Spain.
“At-Tasrif liman Ajiza ‘an At-Ta’lif” is the remarkable medical encyclopedia written by Al-Zahrawi. Translated as “The Method of Medicine,” and called “At-Tasrif” for short, it is considered a masterpiece in medical research. It consists of 30 large volumes; a result of approximately 50 years of commitment to the advancement of medicine, particularly the field of surgery. It is also good source for learning more about Al-Zahrawi’s methods, life and personality.
“At-Tasrif” includes various topics, such as surgery, ophthalmology, pharmacology, nutrition, obstetrics, maternal and child health, and the anatomy and physiology of the human body. His clinical methods encouraged the careful examination of each case individually and advised against following books word for word, in order to reach an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
The largest section in “At-Tasrif” is solely about surgery. It is regarded as the first Arabic work to deal with the topic extensively. Al-Zahrawi provided illustrations and explanations of the use of about 200 surgical instruments, most of which were invented by him. Noteworthy examples include an apparatus for removing foreign objects from the throat, a device for the internal examination of the ear, and another for the internal inspection of the urethra.
Moreover, Al-Zahrawi is regarded as the earliest leading plastic surgeon, as numerous surgeries he had performed would be defined as forms of plastic surgery today. He also excelled in the field of dentistry; his encyclopedia included a description of many dental operations, a discussion about the problem of deformed teeth and how to fix these defects. He also developed the technique of preparing artificial teeth.
Al-Zahrawi emphasized the significance of a good relationship between the doctor and his patients, highlighting the importance of winning their trust and ensuring their wellbeing, regardless of their social status. He also enjoyed sharing his knowledge with his students, whom he called “my children.” Thus, being a respectable, humane, and honest individual, Al-Zahrawi was appointed the personal physician of King Al-Hakam II of Spain.
The Western world was introduced to Al-Zahrawi with the translation of his work, the first being in Latin by Gerard of Cremona. Along with Ibn Sina’s “the Canon,” Al-Zahrawi’s book was widely used as a medical text in the universities of Europe from the 12th to the 17th Centuries. He also influenced the field of surgery; for example, the French surgeon Guy de Chauliac quoted “At-Tasrif” more than 200 times in his book “Great Surgery” (1363).
Al-Zahrawi’s influence is still felt today as many modern medical methods find their roots in “At-Tasrif.” Al-Zahrawi’s efforts and dedication have surely paid off, as they have benefited the Islamic empire during his time and greatly contributed towards the advancement of medicine.